Today Microsoft joins communities around the country in honoring the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law on July 26, 1990. The anniversary provides an important opportunity to reflect on our shared commitment to ending discrimination and securing access, equality and independence for all Americans with disabilities.
In the United States today nearly one in five Americans has a disability. The ADA’s reach therefore is hard to overstate. Individuals with disabilities are people of every race, creed and color in every segment of society. They are our friends, neighbors, colleagues, customers and family members. Often when we think about the ADA a quarter century after its passage, we tend to think of sign language interpreters at public events, closed captioning on television and Braille on elevators and ATMs. Or we may think of ramps, bus-lifts, curb-cuts and widened doors.
While all of these are important, there is an additional vital element. At its core the ADA is not about the dimensions of doorways, but the individuals who can now pass through them.
A vision for the ADA that focuses on people helps enfranchise so many who have been excluded for so long. It also enriches and opens our institutions to the very best and brightest talent our country has to offer. That is the power of diversity and why diversity efforts should include disability.
To better understand how Microsoft’s Department of Legal and Corporate Affairs could best support disability diversity in our own field, we commissioned a modest study to identify the most significant challenges facing people with disabilities in the legal profession and the profession’s pipeline. While existing data sets vary, the BWB Solutions research that we commissioned confirms that despite the prevalence of disability in the general population, people with disabilities are among the most underrepresented in the legal field.
Download the full report here.
These initial results indicate this is not due solely to a lack of requisite education; substantial hurdles exist in obtaining employment after graduation. In 2014, 47 percent of people with disabilities with master’s and professional degrees (including law degrees) were employed in the U.S., compared to 87 percent of people without disabilities. Surprisingly, the employment rate for people with disabilities with master’s and professional degrees actually declined from 61 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2014, while the employment rate of people without disabilities with similar degrees was relatively stable over the same period.
One reason for this disparity may be outdated and erroneous perceptions. Employers perceive challenges associated with hiring people with disabilities, including higher health care costs, inability to complete all tasks and impact on customer and co-workers. However, research indicates none of these is a significant issue, even though the bias remains.
While we hope that this study and others will provide helpful insights in achieving greater inclusion of those with disabilities in the legal field, we should not wait to take action. As lawyers, we often avoid difficult topics until we are certain we know the precise answers or have mastered the issues. However, we can’t fully understand the issues, let alone meaningful answers or solutions, if we don’t work together.
We can start by engaging in an open dialogue about disability diversity, sharing our challenges, practices and ideas. Within LCA, we facilitate these discussions through our Legal Diversity and Inclusion team, which sponsors speakers, events and research. And because many of the fundamental challenges that face people are no different than those facing other diverse colleagues, we can start on our individual paths to disability diversity simply by beginning with the same principles and values that guide our broader legal diversity efforts – creating a safe place where people can bring their true selves to work, where people feel valued and empowered to do their very best, and where their employers, clients and colleagues appreciate their character, promise, and potential.