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Americans with Disabilities: A Reminder to Public Administrators

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom Barth
July 10, 2019

For the past two years, I have had the honor and privilege of serving on the Board of Directors for Disability:IN North Carolina, an outstanding nonprofit with the mission of fostering inclusion for citizens with disabilities in the workforce. My experience with this organization has reinforced the importance of breaking out of my bubble of privilege. As we know, privilege comes in many forms such as sex, gender, income and nationality. I should note that another bubble of privilege I enjoy is my status as a tenured full professor. Although serving on a nonprofit board in my community is not required or frankly even encouraged by my university, I personally believe I have a professional obligation to do so and such service has enhanced my teaching and research. It has also hopefully been a benefit to the agency as well. In this case, my public service has seriously broadened my horizons and served as a wake-up call regarding the subject of disability.
As public administrators, we have a special duty to raise awareness about those populations who do not enjoy such privilege, including the privilege of being abled or without physical or mental disabilities. The ADA National Network website notes that the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was a statement by our nation that:

“…people with disabilities should have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion.”

As I share with my students, such landmark social legislation is not only important for the concrete results it achieves, but also as a symbolic statement of what we stand for as a country and a constant reminder of the biases we all share. One of those biases is the natural tendency to want to avoid hiring people who on the surface appear to present a “burden” to our workplace; we naturally want to hire the “best and the brightest.” The mental model that comes to mind when recruiting such “top talent” is typically not someone who arrives for the job interview in a wheelchair, is sight or hearing-impaired or has a history of mental illness. But the ADA reminds us that we have a legal obligation to consider such applicants as long as they can fulfill the essential duties of the position with reasonable accommodation. Ah yes, the striving for an equitable society is not always comfortable or convenient.

As a way of reminding us about the rights and opportunities to employment for citizens with disabilities, consider the following facts uncovered by Disability:IN North Carolina:

— The employment rate for North Carolinians with disabilities (ages 21-64) is only 35.2 percent. Although not a direct comparison, the employment rate for individuals (ages 22-30) without a disability is 74 percent.

— 1 in 3 employers report that people with disabilities stay in their jobs longer.

— 34.1 percent of North Carolinians with disabilities have some college or an associate degree (ages 21-64). Top areas of study include Business/Management, Education and STEM.

— Employer surveys consistently show that people with disabilities are rated equal to or more productive than their co-workers.

— There are 57 million Americans with disabilities or 1-out-of-5 Americans.

 — More than 1-3 American households surveyed had at least one member who identified as having a disability. 

Consumers with disabilities are a major part of the consumer population, yet they are underrepresented in the innovation and marketing strategies designed to reach and retain consumers. (For us in the public administration community, I suggest you substitute citizen for consumer and the point is just as valid…how do you say representative bureaucracy?)

This is likely not news for those of you who work with people with disabilities, work in the field of disability awareness, or have a family member with a disability; but it is for this person of privilege. In the spirit of the ADA, think about it.

Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics. [email protected]

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