NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

ADA, Technology Allow Disability Community to Reclaim Their Voices

Dr. Kaufman portrait
Dr. Jonathan Kaufman

Thanks to the convergence of policy and technology, people with disabilities are reimagining how they live and represent themselves, said Dr. Jonathan Kaufman during the inaugural Disability Pride Month virtual lecture on the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the areas of employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications, he said.

“The ADA was a tipping point because it made us begin to rethink public policy and how people with disabilities see themselves within society,” said Kaufman, a consultant, psychotherapist, Forbes columnist and former White House policy advisor on diversity and disability.

Prior to the law’s passage, many people perceived disabilities as physical or mental problems that must be fixed and defined people with disabilities by their disability. This view—known as the medical model—has contributed to “ableism,” which is “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior.” Examples of ableism include inaccessible design, and education and employment discrimination.

The rise of social media occurred as disability laws were changing. He said these new platforms allow people with disabilities “to create, assume and reclaim their identities.” In addition, movies and television shows starring actors with disabilities have become more common. Recently, several have won some of the highest awards in film. 

The convergence of public policy, social media and representation have given people with disabilities an opportunity to portray themselves on their terms, instead of from an ableist perspective, he noted. 

The disability community “has a tremendous amount of muscle,” he noted. The community is larger than the population of China. There are many types of disability that run the gamut across race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and age.

“My experience with disability as a person who has cerebral palsy is very different from my friend, Laurie, who is a deaf woman,” he explained. “This diversity is what makes us wonderful.”

Because more people are disclosing their disabilities, software companies are developing accessible technologies. These allow people with disabilities to work, go to school and “do so many other things that were not possible.” Microsoft, for example, operates a lab devoted to researching accessible technologies.

People with disabilities offer new insights into how to work. When the Covid-19 pandemic first began, employees’ approach to work became decentralized—they were no longer in the office every day. Through his consulting work, Kaufman has found that a lot of answers about how to work remotely came from the lived experience of disability. This “disability mindset” is very valuable in the era of Covid, when companies are evaluating what their needs are. 

He advised people with disabilities and hiring officials to form an alliance and work together to create an inclusive workforce for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. It requires finding common ground. 

“The ADA is a wonderful piece of legislation,” concluded Kaufman. “It also says there’s so much more to do. We must use it as a springboard for innovation.”

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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