The ADA and the Changing Face of the American Workforce

This year, the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the ADA has sparked both reflection on the past and contemplation of the future. Approaching the quarter-century mark makes us realize that a whole generation has grown up with the ADA.

The law has done much to alter our landscape. Many buildings, facilities, and vehicles are more accessible, but there are changes that are less “concrete” as well. We are more likely than ever before to see a sign language interpreter at a public meeting, or a golfer using adaptive equipment on a golf course, or a child with a developmental disability participating in a program alongside children without disabilities.

The ADA doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though; it influences, and is influenced by, other developments in our society. Technology, for example, has developed and expanded in recent years at a breathtaking pace. When the ADA was passed in 1990, the Internet was barely out of its infancy, and was used primarily by the scientific and academic communities. The average individual didn’t have a personal computer, access to the Internet, e-mail, or a cell phone. Today, many people have all these things, rolled into one device which easily fits in the palm of their hand.

Technological development has presented both new barriers and new opportunities to people with disabilities. For example, high-tech products and systems, including computers, telephones, software programs, and websites, are not always designed to be accessible and user-friendly to people with disabilities. Yet our enhanced abilities to connect and communicate via technology have increased opportunities for individuals to work from home or other locations. These expanded options for flexibility and productivity can benefit people with and without disabilities, as well as employers.

Employment in the New Millennium

Other societal factors have contributed to changes in the way many employers approach workforce and workplace issues. Recent decades have seen more and more women working outside the home, and traditional gender roles and responsibilities evolving within many families. Workers with young children have lobbied for more flexibility in terms of when, where, and how work is done.

Additionally, the demographic makeup of our population is shifting. The aging of the “baby boomer” generation, the first of whom began to turn 65 years of age in the year 2011, is fueling a substantial growth in the numbers of older people. About 13 percent of the U.S. population was over the age of 65 in 2010; by the year 2030 this figure is projected to increase to nearly 20 percent.*

The aging population affects the workforce in a number of ways. Older people may affect the employment of others, such as the many younger or middle-aged workers who face the demands of caring for aging parents. At the same time, people over the age of 65 are themselves more likely to rejoin or remain in the workforce. Some older people are compelled by financial need to work, but others simply want to work. Older people choose to work for a variety of reasons; they may want to undertake a new challenge in a second career, support a charitable or humanitarian cause, or merely continue in jobs and careers they enjoy. Many of these older workers can contribute great skills and valuable perspectives, but may also need workplace flexibility.

The concept of workplace flexibility to accommodate groups like parents is not unlike the concept of providing reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. Indeed, as the changing population and the challenging economy have put more pressure on employers, many of them have found workplace flexibility and accommodation to be a win-win scenario. Accommodating workers’ family needs, personal circumstances, or disabilities can gain loyal, productive employees, and we cannot afford to waste the talents or dismiss the contributions of anyone.

*Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics


This is a publication of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Dept. of Ed. (Grant # H133A060085). The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

© 2013 TransCen, Inc.