When Tony Coelho wrote the American with Disabilities Act 31 years ago, his goal was to ensure that people with disabilities could participate in the workforce with equal opportunities of inclusion and success.
Three decades later, people with disabilities — the largest minority group in the country — remain underrepresented in the workforce, particularly within the federal workforce.
Four years ago, the government set a benchmark calling for every agency to commit to having no less than 12% of its employees made up of people with disabilities. But even that number fell below parity, given that 26% of American adults, or 61 million people, have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tracking the government's progress has also proven difficult. Despite the 12% benchmark, the Office of Personnel Management "does not routinely track or report retention data on employees with disabilities," according to the Government Accountability Office. Some of the clearest figures come from a 2020 report from the GAO, which found that while hiring of people with disabilities increased from 2011-2017, more work needed to be done to boost retention, training and reasonable accommodation efforts.
Coelho says progress has been made: nearly every presidential candidate provided a disability policy plan in the 2020 election. For the first time, there are sign language interpreters for every White House press briefing, and the White House Domestic Policy Council has its first ever director of disability policy.
But advocates say it's important to continue the momentum. The government, as the nation's largest employer, has worked toward being a model workplace for people with disabilities for decades, even before the ADA was signed. The Biden administration has pledged that their hires and appointments will reflect what America looks like, but advocates say change is not just about hiring practices — it is measured by changes in workplace culture around how people with disabilities are perceived, and in building workplaces that address accessibility within the framework of equity and inclusion.