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A History of Discrimination


A History of Discrimination

Prior to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, there was no recourse for discrimination against people with disabilities.  As explained by DREDF, the lack of jobs or community access was an inevitable consequence of disability.  The Rehabilitation Act Amendments passed in 1973, was the first that recognized people with disabilities as a legitimate minority.  For the first time, people with disabilities were offered protection against discrimination.  These amendments effectively shifted the blame of the lack of opportunities for people with disabilities from the individual to the environment[1].  

While the ADA has offered recourse to people with disabilities who experience discrimination, it has not eliminated discriminatory behavior.  Research indicates that employees with disabilities are more likely to start in entry-level positions, they are more likely to stay in lower-paying positions, they have fewer opportunities for career advancement, and they are paid less[2],[3].  People with disabilities also report less “fit” in the workplace.  According to Nishii and Bruyere, employees with disabilities report less favorable attitudes and experience at work, including perceptions of fairness; less organizational support, less fit with the job and with co-workers, lower quality relationships with managers, less empowerment and less engagement[4].  Current data on employment statistics are readily available.


Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities.  A person has a disability "if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment."  This definition has not changed since the law was originally implemented in 1990.  However, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) and the subsequent regulations released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) directed us to interpret the definition differently.  The ADAAA said that the "substantially limits" part of the definition should be construed broadly to provide protections to a broader class of people with disabilities.  While this may sound permissive to some readers, before the ADAAA was passed, very few people could successfully secure the protections that the ADA was intended to provide.  When a case went to court, the person with a disability was inevitably found to be either not sufficiently disabled to be covered by the law, or so disabled that they could not be qualified for the job in question.  In essence, the ADAAA reset the ADA to its original intent to prevent discrimination in employment for people with disabilities. 


[1] DREDF, 1992.  The history of the Americans with Disabilities Act:  A movement perspective.  Retrieved from [2] Schur, L., Kruse, D., & Blanck, P. (2005). Corporate culture and the employment of persons with disabilities. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 23(1), 3–20. [3] Yin, M., Shaewitz, D., & Megra, M. (2014).  An uneven playing field: The lack of equal pay for people with disabilities.  Washington, DC:  American Institute for Research. Retrieved from     [4] Nishii, L., & Bruyère, S. M. (2014). Inside the workplace: Case studies of factors influencing engagement of people with disabilities. Research Brief Summarizing material presented at the 2013 State of the Science Conference. Ithaca NY: Employment and Disability Institute. Retrieved from


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