Each July, we celebrate the anniversary of a major milestone in America’s ongoing quest to build a more equitable, inclusive society — the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. Like other civil-rights laws, the ADA was both a victory and a vow. It marked the culmination of tireless efforts on the part of many individuals, organizations and allies to affirm the rights of people with disabilities across community life. Most importantly, it established a channel for upholding those rights.
A shining example of this came in 1999, when the Supreme Court ruled that, under the ADA, Americans with disabilities, including the most significant disabilities, have the right to live and receive publicly funded services in their communities, in the most integrated settings possible. This ruling in Olmstead v. L.C. was another watershed moment in civil-rights history, rendering a clearer vision of what an equitable, inclusive society looks like.
This vision extends to employment, because for so many of us a large part of living in a community is working in that community. As a result, Olmstead set the stage for what today is an important dimension of our work in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy — advancing competitive integrated employment.
CIE means work in community settings where most employees do not have disabilities, and people with disabilities are paid directly at the greater of the minimum or prevailing wage. It’s a key component of an equitable, inclusive workforce, which is our fundamental goal at our agency and the department at large. So, through a number of initiatives, we help states and service providers maximize opportunities for people with disabilities to prepare for and succeed in CIE. This work supports a clearly stated goal of the Biden-Harris administration, which on last year’s ADA anniversary announced significant investments to expand CIE, among other actions, to increase equity and inclusion for people with disabilities. Our agency has since added to those investments with its National Plan to Increase Competitive Integrated Employment and technical assistance webinars.
As noted, CIE is rooted in the Olmstead decision, which crystallized the promise of inclusion inherent in the ADA. But really, the ADA underlies all our work at our agency. And through policy development, outreach and education, and technical assistance, we help both workers and employers understand their rights and responsibilities under the law. During the past two years, the importance of this work has only been reinforced as the ADA has proven agile in responding to needs unanticipated when it was passed.
For instance, today people experiencing long COVID may be entitled to temporary and long-term supports to help them work during their recovery. The right to request such accommodations is central to the ADA’s employment provisions. Reflecting this, our Job Accommodation Network offers free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations, whether for workers with long COVID or any nature of disability, apparent or not. These include mental-health conditions, rates of which we know have increased significantly since the start of the pandemic.
At our agency, our mission — to develop and influence policies and practices that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities — advances the spirit of the ADA, as affirmed by Olmstead. We’re committed to delivering on that mission, for all workers with disabilities. In this spirit, we are also assessing our policies and programs to ensure they meet the needs of workers from historically underserved communities. Doing so is critical to both honoring the victory achieved 32 years ago and delivering on the vow it represented.
Taryn Williams is the assistant secretary of labor in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.