Celebrating ADA 29: Reflections from our President/CEO on Inclusion in the Workplace, Then & Now
On July 26th, we celebrated 29 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark legislation that declared equal rights for people with disabilities, including equal employment rights. As we continue to commemorate this significant moment in history, we’re thrilled to share thoughts and reflections from NBDC’s President and CEO, John D. Kemp, about his integral role in the passage of the ADA and the nature of disability inclusion in the workplace then and now:
What role did you play in the passage of the ADA? In what ways did you advocate?
First, I testified before a Committee of the US Congress in favor of the ADA, just as I had done with the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which also passed and was signed into law. I was actively involved in its passage by ensuring all stakeholders, people with disabilities and their families, disability organizations, business associations, state and local governments, etc., understood what it would mean for all. Two years prior to its passage, while in Chicago, I was a participant in several coalitions that brought the businesses and disability communities together to discuss the impact of the legislation and the fairness and balance it sought to have. In moving to DC in June, 1990, just prior to its passage, Paul Hearne, with whom I co-founded AAPD and an alum of our Henry Viscardi School, and I accompanied Senator Robert Dole to a meeting with the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). NFIB was a fierce opponent of the ADA then, yet it was also the largest national small business association. The meeting gave us insight into the businesses’ perspective and how the Senator had set out to secure compromises that would get the legislation passed. He wisely advised us that the disability community would need to be flexible if it was going to be successful in gaining NFIB’s and other business associations’ support for the Act.
When it comes to disability inclusion in the workplace, how would you describe the difference between employers then and now?
Twenty-nine years ago, businesses did not embed inclusion into their business practices. Employers generally became enlightened through a C-suite champion, but then that individual would be promoted, leave the company, or retire, leaving a gap and the need to restart the process all over again. Today, companies are approaching diversity and inclusion more comprehensively and embedding it into their corporate cultures. Inclusion practices now go beyond just hiring. They’re extending into areas such as the supply chain, procurement, marketing and customer contact, and accessible Information and Communication Technology (ICT). In addition, the departure of one champion doesn’t threaten or deteriorate the inclusion process now. Businesses are much more enlightened, and they realize the benefit of it to the bottom line and in recruiting and retaining values-based staff.
Based on your experiences, what is the biggest disability inclusion challenge for companies today?
Embedding inclusion into their business practices and the open-mindedness needed to accept new challenges. These include mental health, Opioid addiction and other contemporary and future issues that will arise. We do not know what the next ones may be, but we must be willing to understand, accept and address them in the workplace.
How can NBDC help companies bridge these gaps to increase disability inclusion in the workplace?
NBDC can assist companies in diversifying their workforces by acting as subject matter experts on a broad range of topics; providing customized training to employees at all levels; helping businesses establish ‘train the trainer’ models so that information can be passed along; and being a forum and meeting place, like ERG’s are within progressive companies, for employees to exchange good ideas and best practices.