Commentary: 30th anniversary of the Disabilities Act highlights need to modernize the policy

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turned 30 last month, and it’s important to consider how we are either helping or failing people with disabilities as a matter of national policy.

Consider these facts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, only 19 percent of people with disabilities were employed during the 9-year period between 2009 and 2018, compared to more than 65 percent of people without disabilities.

In 2018, 16.7 percent of young adults with disabilities hadn’t attained a high school diploma, compared to 7.7 percent of their peers without disabilities; 15.6 percent of people with disabilities had a bachelor’s degree or more, versus 38.4 percent of people without disabilities.

For those with disabilities who are 30 or under – the “ADA generation,” as they’ve been called – the relative youth of the disability community’s major civil rights law means they’ve grown up with far higher expectations for themselves than their older counterparts, and we owe them a different future.

I speak from experience. My older brother Jack was born with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities in 1934 when the concept of investing in a person with a disability was essentially unheard of.

After all, it was only in 1975 that people with disabilities secured the federal right to a public education; only in 1976 that they gained the right to attend college; only in 1979 that Virginia stopped forcibly sterilizing people with disabilities (other states stopped short times before); and only in 2010 that Congress mandated devices and services like smart phones and emergency alerts be accessible to people with disabilities.

It has only been relatively recently that people with disabilities have secured major rights that the nondisabled take for granted. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that many of our national policies and programs for people with disabilities have yet to catch up with these civil rights gains and seismic shifts in expectations, and are still rooted in the vestiges of bygone eras.

Medicaid is 55 years old. For someone in a situation like my brother Jack, Medicaid provides personal care services that can be an absolute gamechanger for getting ready for a job each day; for being able to have an independent life in the community; and to fully participate.

However, most long-term services and supports are not available through private insurance plans and are far too expensive to afford out-of-pocket. Further, Medicaid eligibility is predicated on poverty. If my brother, helped by Medicaid services, were to have found a job and worked too many hours, he’d have lost eligibility for the very services that enabled him to get the job in the first place.

Medicaid policy dictates that people with disabilities should only receive these vital services if they’re willing to remain impoverished; that they must choose to be healthy or productive and not both.

Social Security is 85 years old. Receiving these benefits is often the difference between extreme poverty and low-income living. Yet eligibility hinges on an arcane definition of disability that equates disability with an inability to work. Eligibility also requires that people have extremely limited assets. We discourage people with disabilities from saving for emergencies, never mind a brighter future. It’s easy to see why many refer to Social Security as a poverty trap.

People with disabilities make up approximately 12 percent of the working-age population in the US; however, they account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty. This should be a gut check for how much work is left to be done.

On this 30th anniversary year of the ADA, we can’t gloss over the fact that our national policies and programs are contributing to promises deferred for people with disabilities. We should instead seize on the opportunity to modernize policies that are painfully out of sync with what people with disabilities in America want and need today – services and supports that facilitate employment rather than discourage it.

James T. Brett is the president & CEO of The New England Council, and serves as vice chair of the National Council on Disability (NCD), the independent federal agency that called for and authored the first draft of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (