Empowering Change

We've made great strides in providing opportunities in the workplace for those with disabilities – but much work remains.

Man, I’m old. I can’t believe it’s been 28 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in the U.S. Sure, 28 years is a blip on a screen in the grand scheme of humankind, but when I think of all that’s changed, personally and for disability rights, it seems like eons.

On July 26th, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which required companies to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities.

President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 1990. (Source: Public Domain – Wikipedia Commons)

At that time, I was a junior in high school, still driving a car, and with only vague ideas about what I might want to do for a career. I certainly didn’t see myself as “disabled,” even though we had learned when I was 5 that I had a condition that leads to blindness.

At that moment in time, however, I really just had this nuisance night-blindness and certainly no concerns with disability or reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

Adjusting to a new life

Vision loss caught up with me, though, and by the late 90s, I started to notice changes in how I could interact with these new-fangled computers. Default settings that everyone else used were a strain for me, uncomfortable, even painful.

During college in a busy city setting, I had (with great reluctance) taken to using a white cane around campus at night – for safety and to alert others to the fact that I didn’t see well.

I used assistive tech when needed and found myself in a new job-or no-job situation. This seemed like an appropriate time to begin searching for some new assistive options again.

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Unemployment among working-aged adults with disabilities remains unacceptably high.

On the ride together

Thankfully, throughout my career, I’ve had the benefit of extremely supportive managers, eager to provide whatever help I’ve needed to do the job.

As someone losing sight gradually, the decision to disclose or not disclose my disability was not terribly difficult for me, as I’ve shared openly with my managers as things were happening – in some ways we were on the ride together.

Over time, I’ve come to recognize the importance of the ADA for helping employees with disabilities access the supports they need in the workplace and have thankfully never experienced a denial of such supports myself.

I’ve appreciated the collaborative spirit of each of my managers and have worked to avoid any sense of entitlement in the workplace, though knowing the ADA is in force feels empowering in your back pocket.

Pushing forward 

Now in the late stages of vision loss, I am extremely grateful for the ADA and feel a growing personal responsibility to champion the cause.

I feel compelled to help tackle the fact that despite the ADA unemployment among working-aged adults with disabilities remains unacceptably high – in the U.S. and worldwide.

It’s on us to be the change we wish to see, and I’m all in for helping continue to push forward.

This article first appeared on the IBM THINK blog and was republished with permission.

Erich Manser is part of the IBM team exploring new approaches to accessible technology and new applications of emerging technologies to enhance accessibility.

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