By Shelia Newman
New Editions Consulting, Inc., a Falls Church City company, is a government consulting firm that focuses on disability, health, education and international development programs. Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal agencies, disability organizations and even the White House held events commemorating the anniversary. New Editions employees attended many of these events.
Before starting New Editions, I worked as a rehabilitation counselor, trying to change employer attitudes about hiring people with disabilities. Last week, while reflecting on my long career in the field, I remembered spending the year before the law was signed arguing with my brother-in-law, who belonged to an organization that was actively lobbying against the legislation. He was convinced that the American with Disabilities Act, or ADA, would be the death of the small business that employed him. Our arguments were heated and often led to me saying things such as, “We’re all only temporarily able-bodied. You should be helping to create an environment you’d want to live in if you became disabled.” I felt I had won that argument when the ADA was signed into law and his company continued business as usual.
About 15 years ago, that brother-in-law had an accident and became mobility impaired. Now when we are together, he smiles at me each time he can press a door button and have it stay open while he enters the building. We exchange glances when we enter a theater and there’s a place for him to sit or when a ramp allows him to avoid stairs that are almost impossible for him to navigate. “Thank goodness for the ADA,” he will whisper to me.
Yes, the ADA has improved the physical environment, but I believe no one can gain independence without a fair opportunity at meaningful employment and increasing employment rates has been more difficult than building ramps, curb-cuts, automatic doors and other accessibility features.
There is research to support that hiring people with disabilities contributes to a company’s success and a large number of Americans say they prefer to patronize businesses that hire people with disabilities. Many large companies recognize this, realizing that the small cost associated with accommodations is more than balanced by the benefits of having highly motivated employees with better than average attendance and lower turnover rates.
To help large employers assess their disability inclusion policies and practices, New Editions built the website and database for the Disability Equality Index (DEI), a national, benchmarking tool created by the US Business Leadership Network and the American Association of People with Disabilities. Eighty Fortune 1000-size companies completed the 2014 DEI survey. I’m hopeful that more large companies will learn of the DEI and recognize the contributions that people with disabilities can make to their organizations. I’m hopeful also, that more small businesses will follow New Editions’ example.
Twelve years ago, I started hiring employees into New Editions and was able to practice what I’d been teaching. Now, about 20 percent of New Editions’ employees have disabilities and many others have spouses, children and parents who have disabilities. We are a profitable company and we have received awards from The Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine, and Virginia Business magazine for our workplace culture.
As a part of our ADA celebration, New Editions asked our employees to reflect on the past 25 years and offered them an opportunity to share their experiences in a blog post on our company website. Most expressed positive experiences as a result of the ADA, but we all acknowledge that there is more work to be done, especially in the areas of affordable, accessible housing, transportation, and employment. Knowing that we’re all equal in the eyes of the law is inspiring, but legislation alone won’t change attitudes.
One employee, Doug Zak, said, “I also feel that people with disabilities, and not laws, must be the ones to change perceptions of people with disabilities. I try to do this every day by doing the best job I possibly can, participating in group situations as much as possible, and being out in the community communicating with other people so that they may see that I am really just like them in so many ways. In this way I hope to promote diversity in the workplace and community and help people overcome their initial skepticism toward people with disabilities. I am so thankful to have found a job with New Editions, a company that appreciates and promotes workplace diversity and provides an understanding and caring environment where I can advance my career goals.”
Doug, I and all our employees, at this time of reflection on the changes effected by the ADA, hope that our award-winning company serves as a model of success and profitability that will encourage other companies to promote diversity in the workplace and include people with disabilities.
Shelia Newman is the president of New Editions Consulting, Inc.