Before July 26, 1990, far too many people -- workers injured on the job; veterans wounded at war; or children born with cognitive challenges -- faced discrimination based solely on their disabilities. But then, in a grand Rose Garden ceremony, President George H.W. Bush signed into law landmark legislation -- the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
-- which crystallized decades of hard work to challenge the status quo that people with disabilities, both mental and physical, should face pity or isolation.
The ADA gave more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, just like my son Cole, the chance to live the American Dream and be defined only by their potential -- not their limitations.
Twenty-five years later, we celebrate the positive disruption of the ADA in an ongoing journey towards equality of opportunity for everyone, including those with disabilities. It was a momentous step, but it was only one step.
While the law improved the ability of these men and women finding employment over the past 2½ decades, some of the stigmas associated with having a disability persist, and this is hindering them from achieving their dreams of being independent, having a job, and being seen as a contributing member of society. That is our 21st century battleground.
Studies including ones by Cornell
and Princeton Universities
have shown that potential employers preemptively perceive people with disabilities as "incompetent" and "costly," something which is simply not the case.
In fact, reality is the opposite. In case studies conducted by major job creators like Walgreens, employees with disabilities thrived in the workplace
and were actually described as more dependable, passionate, loyal, dedicated and efficient than their peers.
Throughout human history, some of our most influential inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders have had disabilities. For example, Bill Gates
, Sir Richard Branson
and Charles Schwab
are all dyslexic, while scientist Stephen Hawking has used a wheelchair for decades. And, of course, the inspirational Helen Keller became the first deaf/blind person to graduate from college.
These trailblazers inspired billions of people because they pursued their dreams. When they saw an opportunity available to them, they overcame and achieved beyond the imaginable. These are the kinds of opportunities the ADA helps open up to everyone with disabilities.
In my home state of Washington, there are roughly 425,000 working age people with disabilities -- 25,000 of whom are under the age of 21. Only 30% of them are employed. Unfortunately, the national numbers are even worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014, only 17.1% of Americans with disabilities were employed. These numbers have remained the same for the past 25 years.
Solving the problem requires people imagining what's possible and forming innovative policies and programs to make it happen. More important, we need to give those with disabilities a chance.
With that spirit in mind, my congressional office is one of many that participates in the American Association of People with Disabilities summer internship program, which gives students with disabilities an opportunity to get hands-on professional experience.
Similarly, Bridges to Work and Project SEARCH are effective programs that connect people with disabilities with competitive jobs, where they can thrive and contribute.
There are legislative solutions, too. In Congress, we have built on the ADA with ideas like the ABLE Act to allow people with disabilities to create tax-free savings accounts for housing, transportation, and education without losing access to critical health care and other much-needed benefits; and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which provides more employment opportunities.
We also are working to ensure that the disabilities community has access to life-changing, critical innovations, and that we limit bureaucratic barriers that get in the way. The Steve Gleason Act, which is expected to be signed into law by the president soon, is one example of how we're delivering new technology, such as speech-generating devices, to those who need them most.
Next, Congress needs to take up the challenge of strengthening the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so students can learn the skills and training they need to be competitive in the job market. All this matters because a job is so much more than a paycheck; it gives us purpose, dignity, and the foundation for a better life.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we should applaud the progress it helped make, but always be looking forward to a brighter future when people with disabilities have even more opportunities to pursue the American Dream. Together, united by this common cause, we can achieve the extraordinary.