It’s Been Nearly 3 Decades Since Passage of the ADA—We Need More Career Opportunities for People with Disabilities


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been in effect for nearly three decades, but youth and adults with disabilities still lack sufficient career opportunities. A new initiative aims to change that.

By Jacqueline Gonzalez and Patricia Maguire

One of us has a mother with a mobility disability. The other has a father who copes with substance use and mental illness.

Our upbringings have made each of us deeply aware of the experiences of people with disabilities and their families—particularly in their efforts to secure gainful employment and achieve economic self-sufficiency. Our lived experiences as close family members of people with disabilities played major roles in each of our decisions to work at JFF, an organization that seeks to build a promising economic future for everyone.

Connecting Workers and Employers

Supporting this goal, we, along with our JFF colleagues, are committed to finding better ways to connect highly talented workers with disabilities to employers seeking to fill high-skill positions. We’re especially excited about JFF’s ongoing partnership on the Apprenticeship Inclusion Models (AIM) initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).

We believe that inclusive apprenticeships and related work-based learning can provide a combination of on-the-job experience and academic instruction that facilitates access to career pathways for people with disabilities. Youth and young adults with disabilities who participate in apprenticeships and related WBL opportunities have demonstrated stronger post-school outcomes.

Work-based learning also affords strong benefits for employers who previously have hesitated to hire people with disabilities. By enhancing access to inclusive apprenticeships for people with disabilities, employers can become more familiar with diverse working styles of job seekers in this talent pool. Prior research shows that businesses that take initial steps to employ people with disabilities, whether via internships or other pursuits, have improved attitudes and a greater interest in considering talented job candidates with disabilities.  

Through personal experience, we know that people with disabilities are fully capable of performing successfully in a multitude of work environments when they can access needed workplace accommodations. Still, people with disabilities face disproportionate rates of unemployment: Nearly six in 10 working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed. 

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has found that most workplace accommodations for people with disabilities have no associated costs; and accommodations that do have an associated cost, such as accessible and assistive technology, have a typical cost of $500. Furthermore, collaborations can help employers access resources and information that support accommodations. (You can learn more about JAN’s resources on workplace accommodations at www.askjan.org.)

Through personal experience, we know that people with disabilities are fully capable of performing successfully in a multitude of work environments when they can access needed workplace accommodations.

Fulfilling the Vision of ADA

This month, we celebrate the 29th anniversary of the passage of the ADA. The ADA is a critical federal law that guarantees people with disabilities equal access to employment, transportation, telecommunications, places of public accommodation, and government services. 

While America must continue to make strides to realize the full vision of the ADA, we choose to mark this anniversary by focusing on the promise of initiatives like AIM. These efforts are working to unleash the potential of an untapped workforce by creating opportunities for people with disabilities to pursue rewarding, well-paying careers.      

With AIM, JFF has partnered with Social Policy Research Associates and Wheelhouse Group to explore how inclusive apprenticeships can build career pathways for youth and adults with disabilities in high-demand, well-paying occupations. We are piloting inclusive apprenticeship models designed for people with disabilities in collaboration with Amazon, Microsoft, the Healthcare Career Advancement Program (H-CAP), and the Industrial Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship program (IMT). Along the way, we’ll document successes, share our insights with workforce development professionals, and foster a community of practice for inclusive apprenticeship opportunities.

Debunking Stigmas and Misconceptions

We believe our engagement on the AIM initiative will build on and enhance ongoing efforts to address stigmas and misconceptions about people with disabilities in the workplace. We’ll dig deep and test ideas on how to help people with disabilities navigate the journey toward gaining and retaining meaningful employment opportunities. And we’ll offer tools, resources, and solutions for apprenticeship programs and the WBL community on how to design truly inclusive programs and expand access for youth and adults with disabilities.

We know this work presents highly important implications because we are not the only individuals whose lives have been shaped by the experiences of people with disabilities—far from it. Nearly a quarter of adults in the U.S. have one or more disabilities. People with disabilities in this country have a major impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of other Americans—coworkers, friends, family members, and other members of our communities. 

Thus, initiatives like AIM do not solely affect job candidates with disabilities and the employers that seek to fill high-skill positions at their workplaces. These efforts are very meaningful for anyone with a friend, relative, or a neighbor with a disability; this work is important to all of us.

We invite you to stay connected to the latest developments for our ongoing work on the AIM initiative and to learn about our national webinars and other resources for enhancing inclusive apprenticeships for people with disabilities. Please sign up for the AIM mailing list and the AIM Community of Practice by filling out the form on the AIM webpage at spra.com/aim.

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is the only non-regulatory federal agency that promotes policies and coordinates with employers and all levels of government to increase workplace success for people with disabilities. ODEP focuses on driving change and creating opportunity. Their mission is to develop and influence policies and practices that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. ODEP envisions a world in which people with disabilities have unlimited employment opportunities.


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