Blending the Science with the Art: Disability Service Providers and the ADA

Northeast ADA Center Staff April 26, 2020

If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door. —Milton Berle

Knowing Your Value

Disability service providers (DSP) offer an array of services and supports not only to job seekers and working people with disabilities, but also to employers. Many DSPs enter the field of human services with a primary focus on making in a difference in the lives of others. Frequently, this focus centers on the wants and needs of the person receiving services. Although the DSP may maintain an awareness of the needs of job seekers with disabilities, often they lack a thorough knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The savvy DSP not only knows what the ADA says, but also understands how to package the ADA as an element of customer service to both job seekers and employers. This ability to know the law and understand how to apply it to one’s everyday practice comes through the service provider being able to blend the “science”, or the ADA as law, with the “art”, or one’s ability to deliver a positive message to others regarding the talents and contributions of job seekers with disabilities. It’s a delicate balance, and the skilled DSP meets the needs of both clients: job seeker and employer.

 About the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Its overarching purpose is to make the world more accessible to people with disabilities in the United States. It is divided into five titles that cover Americans with qualifying disabilities in numerous aspects of their daily lives: living, working, shopping, transporting, vacationing, recreating, and more. Title I of the ADA covers employment, and requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees with disabilities. Title I prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all aspects of employment. 

It is important to note that the ADA is not about “special rights” for people with disabilities, but rather it is an attempt to level the playing field so that all qualified citizens with disabilities have access to the same benefits of employment as their fellow friends, neighbors and colleagues without disabilities. A job applicant or employee with a disability must be qualified: one must have the requisite skills and experience necessary to perform the job and be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. 

Ultimately, the spirit of the ADA is about non-discrimination. Like the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, President George H.W. Bush stated that the ADA “is the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.” At its heart, it is important for disability service providers to understand that the ADA is about equality, fairness, and justice for Americans living with disabilities.

“The ADA is the civil rights act of the future.”  —Justin Dart, Jr., A founder of the ADA

The Disclosure Dilemma

In order to benefit from the protections of the ADA, a job applicant or employee first must disclose a qualifying disability, particularly for disabilities that are not obvious. For many people, the topic of disclosure can be both delicate and complex. A Cornell University survey asked respondents with disabilities to rate the importance of various factors in the decision to disclose (or not disclose) the existence of a disability to an employer. The top reasons supporting disclosure were: “need for accommodation” (68%), “supportive supervisor relationship” (64%), and “disability-friendly workplace” (57%). Conversely, the top reasons discouraging disclosure were: “risk of being fired/not hired” (73%), “employer may focus on disability (62%), and “risk of losing health care” (62%) (von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., Erickson, W., & Bruyère , S, 2011).

This research highlights several key issues for the Disability Service Provider. First, many disabilities are not obvious—you can’t “see” them. Couple this with the fact that job seekers/employees with disabilities fear disparate treatment: not getting hired, getting fired, or being treated differently at work, to name just a few, and for many people receiving employment services this could lead to a reluctance to disclose to an employer. For example, depression, anxiety disorders, epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS are non-obvious disabilities and nearly always considered covered disabilities under the ADA, but if a job seeker chooses not to disclose, that person is not entitled to the protections offered by the ADA, including reasonable accommodation. 

Once I was invited to speak at a community event on the topic of mental illness in the workplace. A service provider in the audience raised her hand and stated: “We advise our clients never to disclose a mental health disability to their employer.” Another time, a disability service provider working with a worker with epilepsy stated: “He doesn’t want to disclose his disability to his employer, but I wish he would, for his own safety. What if he has a seizure at work and nobody knows what to do?”  

As a disability service provider, it is natural to have a desire to help people lead meaningful lives. We support, teach, guide, lead, and model positive activities and behaviors, ones we believe contribute to successful employment—and life—outcomes; yet the ADA tells us that disclosure is a both a personal choice and a legal right. With good intentions, we may have opinions on whether or not someone should disclose to an employer, but our role is not to “tell” people what to do when it comes to disclosure. The role of the service provider is to facilitate an honest discussion about the benefits and concerns surrounding disclosure, to serve as a sounding board and help weigh the benefits and consequences on one’s actions. In this way, we support an informed decision.

For more information, check out the following resources:

Reasonable Accommodation in the Workplace

reasonable accommodation is any change to the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Are you knowledgeable about what the ADA says (and does not say) regarding reasonable accommodation? Do you offer support and education to job seekers/employees with disabilities AND employers regarding the ADA? The ADA states that employers must make reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities who are able to perform the essential functions of the job, unless it would cause an undue hardship.  

During my years as a job developer, I engaged in many conversations with employers about the reasonable accommodation needs of prospective job candidates (always with consent from the candidate). More often than not, I felt in the position of “supplicant” when requesting an accommodation, and if denied, assumed this to be the end of the conversation. My lack of familiarity with what the ADA says (the science) and how to apply it in practice (the art), made me a less effective in my job.

Here is what I did not completely understand: The ADA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals by engaging in an interactive process with the job seeker or employee, in which both employer and employee discuss options that allow the employee to perform the essential job functions. Ultimately, the employer can choose the option they prefer: The accommodation does not have to be the best option available, but it must be effective. Thus, the interactive process is a two-way street. Both employer and employee have a responsibility to participate in the process. In addition, an accommodation can be requested at any point during the employment process, not just at the point of hire! A comprehensive understanding of the ADA and how to use it as a tool in negotiations with employers increases our skills, confidence, and professional image with potential business partners.

(Job Accommodation Network, 2014. Effective Employment Practices Series: The Interactive Process and Service Providers.)

Understand the Science, Practice the Art

Like most professionals in the disability service world, I was drawn to this work through a desire to help job seekers with disabilities lead productive, meaningful lives. I wanted to make an impact and effect change. I wanted to make a difference in the world. But don’t get me wrong, for I recognized that the ADA—at that time still in its infancy—was a legal imperative supporting the full inclusion of people with disabilities in American society. Determination, drive, an unwavering belief in the ability of all people with disabilities to work, and a passion for this work are important to our success, yet like many of my colleagues, I was driven by the philosophy and ideals of the field, with a focus on convincing and persuading employers to “do the right thing.” This passion is pivotal to one’s success as a provider, but it is only part of the equation. 

Not too long ago, in my role as a trainer of disability service providers, I had a lightbulb moment. I realized that when working with businesses on behalf of job seekers with disabilities what I lacked was an understanding of the science: best practices in the field, evidence-based research, and a firm grasp on the laws and policies that impact our work, such as the ADA. It is through a successful blending of the science of our field with the art and passion that led us to this work that we make the business case for the employment of all people with disabilities.


von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., Erickson, W., & Bruyère , S. (2011). Emerging employment issues for people with disabilities: Disability disclosure, leave as a reasonable accommodation, use of job applicant screeners. Report of a Cornell/AAPD Survey. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Employment and Disability Institute.

Job Accommodation Network (2014). Effective Employment Practices Series: The Interactive Process and Service Providers.