ADA Anniversary Highlights Progress, Barriers for People with Disabilities
By Kathryn Walson | June 19, 2020
When a virtual training session with more than 50 people began recently, Cecilia Plaza’s coworker asked for closed captioning.
“The presenters started scrambling, and I Googled how to do (closed captioning) in Zoom and pasted it in the chat. And when they asked if the meeting should be restarted … I said, ‘In the spirit of inclusion, I think we should restart the meeting,’” said Plaza, who is senior director, research at ASAE Research Foundation.
“They restarted (the presentation), and they asked if someone would do the closed captioning. I volunteered to do it and I reminded everyone several times to face the camera when they speak. … And then another colleague … said, ‘If you get tired, let me know. I’ll take over.’ And it was like a group effort.”
Plaza said the incident involved an outside trainer; ASAE ensures captions are provided for all meetings and presentations.
However, many groups that make accommodations for people with disabilities to attend physical meetings may not think about accessibility for virtual meetings.
“It’s a new space for everyone, especially having to pivot so quickly because of the pandemic,” said Heba Mahmoud, senior manager of diversity initiatives at the Consumer Technology Association.
Before holding a webinar or other video session, Mahmoud advises answering the questions: “Is it accessibility friendly? How do the accessibility features work?”
Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act brought about changes in the workplace and society at large. The law was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. However, many organizations—including associations—have lagged in their efforts to support both staff and members with disabilities, according to disability advocates and association executives interviewed by CEO Update. The ADA’s anniversary milestone is a good time for associations to step up their efforts, they said.
The association community “has a lot of work to do … because while the ADA has been around for 30 years, it’s still very difficult for disabled people to get into the professional and trade spaces specifically because of predetermined misconceptions about disabled people and about what we can and can’t do,” said Nell Koneczny, who was hired last year as the American Anthropological Association’s first accessibility and meetings coordinator.
One in four American adults is living with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ADA started removing some of the barriers and discrimination faced by people with disabilities, by requiring elevators and ramps in public transportation and buildings and accessible communication for people who are blind or have low vision or who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The ADA “physically reshaped American communities by opening inaccessible spaces to people with disabilities,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, said in a statement. And it made “disability a protected class and gave our community recourse within our legal system.”
The ADA also required employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” for a person with disabilities who could do the job.
“People with disabilities don’t want to be held to a different standard. People with disabilities can—and want—to do the same jobs at the same levels for the same pay as everyone else,” Glazer said.
However, people with disabilities and advocates say discrimination in hiring is still prevalent today. And some workplaces welcome and support people with disabilities better than others.
Shane Feldman, CEO of Innivee Strategies, said word spreads fast among disability communities regarding which organizations support people with disabilities and which ones fall short.
“That influences our decision of whether or not we want to apply or work for them,” said Feldman, who is deaf.
Feldman, who has been executive director of the Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf and COO of the National Association of the Deaf, is a graduate of ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program. He would like to see more people with disabilities apply for and participate in the two-year educational and mentorship program.
Out of the 207 people who have gone through DELP since the program started in 2000, six have had visual, hearing, mobility or other disabilities, according to ASAE.
“I recognize that we want to celebrate things during the ADA’s 30th anniversary and everything that’s already been accomplished. But as you reflect back, we can do better,” Feldman said.
Compliance to inclusion
The ADA’s anniversary presents an opportunity for associations to shift from a compliance mentality and “fear of litigation” to an inclusion mentality, said Emily Harris, an independent consultant for nonprofits.
Harris suggests thinking of disability inclusion as a “learning journey.” Leaders should keep in mind that many disabilities are “invisible,” such as dyslexia, for example. And many people keep disabilities to themselves, she said. Harris said people do not realize she is hard of hearing until they spot the hearing aid behind her ear.
Recommendations for attracting and supporting members and staff with disabilities include:
- Adopt an across-the-board policy for helping staff “whether you know they have disabilities or not,” Harris said.
“Think of it as a way to help all employees be their best selves and do their best work,” she said. “What does each employee need in order to be most effective at their job? That might include some disability accommodations or might include other kinds of accommodations.”
- Consult disability organizations for guidance, such as the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf. RespectAbility, a disability rights group, released a toolkit to help organizations ensure virtual events are accessible to everyone.
- Commit yourself and your organization to learning.
“There are so many digital assistive technologies built into operating systems and productivity tools that have no additional cost. Other assistive technologies and accommodations are not outside of the reach of software licenses, adaptive keyboards and desks,” said Samantha Evans, certification manager for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. “But not knowing these products and tools are available may give a hiring manager … pause when considering a person with a disability in hiring.”
- Put an “accessibility statement” on your website, and also make the website accessible, Evans said. If people search for the term “accessibility” on your website and nothing comes up, that may indicate that disability inclusion is not a priority for your association, she said.
People who use assistive technologies know within seven to eight seconds whether a website is accessible to them and will leave if it is not, she said.
“As a CEO, I want my engagement to go higher. I want to reach new audiences. What are the best simple things I can do? I can use the Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker on the ribbon that’s right next to spellcheck to make sure that my documents are accessible. I can add alternative text to my documents, my publications, my social media. I can add captions to my video content. I can provide transcripts for my podcast,” Evans said.
- Create a diversity and inclusion initiative, and make sure it includes people with disabilities. Evans said most organizations would likely not want to pay for an accessibility coordinator. But they could designate an “accessibility champion” in the association or within each department, such as communications or IT. The champion should be someone who feels passionately about inclusion and who volunteers to lead their team’s effort.
- Create an accessibility fund. Costs vary according to the need and can include sign-language interpreters or scooters at meetings. Some changes are free or inexpensive, such as adding alt text (alternative text) descriptions to images on social media and websites.
Rather than viewing inclusion as a cost, “look at it instead as a benefit,” Feldman said. He gave the example of a department head who was concerned about the cost of a sign-language interpreter coming from the department’s budget.
“So the CEO of the organization said, ‘Instead of interpreting coming from that department, it’s going to come from the company-wide budget,’” Feldman said. “It removed the barrier and that perception of, ‘Oh wow, this department is spending a lot more money because of this one employee.’ Instead, it looks at, ‘This is the best person for the job.’”
- Find out what people actually need.
“There needs to be a conversation. (Just because) someone makes a request doesn’t mean it’s a demand,” said Karen Beverly-Ducker, director of multicultural practices, at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “Talk. Figure it out. What would be the best solution?”
When members, presenters and exhibitors register for ASHA meetings, they can “indicate that they have a disability that may impact their ability to fully participate. … Is it vision, mobility, hearing, speech/language or other?” Beverly-Ducker said. “Dependent upon the area that they indicate, we have someone whose expertise is in that area follow up with that person one-on-one (to ask), ‘What are your needs?’”
“If someone says, ‘I want a sign language interpreter to accompany me to every single session across your three-day convention,’ that’s probably not going to happen,” she said. “So what can we do? That’s where the conversation (happens), and we gain additional information specific to that person’s needs.”
During their convention, ASHA automatically provides a sign-language interpreter during the opening address and captioning for videos on the big screen. She emphasized that groups should hire professionals to do live captioning because it is more accurate than automated captions.
- Consider making a statement of commitment on the ADA’s 30th anniversary.
“It’s okay to be vulnerable and to just say, “We realize we can do better. … We’re inviting the disabilities communities to reach out to us, to talk with us, to see how we can do better,’” Feldman said.
Plaza, who helped her ASAE colleague with the closed captioning, has a mobility disability that has become more visible in recent years. She tried to hide her disability at times earlier in her career, fearing that potential employers would discriminate against her.
Plaza’s colleague who needed the captions “said I gave her the courage now to speak up for herself. Because she had always been told to blend in, which I had always been taught,” she said. “We all need to learn to speak up for each other.”
After Plaza registered as a participant for a meeting with NTEN, an association for nonprofit technology professionals, the group’s two-person accessibility team contacted her to ask: “Do you want a scooter at the airport or delivered to you at the hotel? What else can we provide? How can we make this meeting easier for you? We are here to help you in any way we can,’” she said.
“It was a team … of two people that were like, ‘Our job is to make sure that you can get around and have the same experience everybody else does.’”
Plaza said NTEN also offered networking groups in which people could be seated at a table, making it easier for someone with a mobility issue to participate. Although the meeting was ultimately canceled because of COVID-19, “I felt so welcome,” Plaza said.