RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago today, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act on the White House lawn with this promise.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom.
MARTIN: And many doors have opened. Still, people with disabilities today are less likely to be employed than they were before the ADA was enacted. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Debbie Eagle, who's been blind since birth, loves to play the piano.
DEBBIE EAGLE: This is one of my favorite arrangements. I love (playing piano).
FESSLER: She's playing at the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges in Tulsa, Okla. Eagle volunteers here too, teaching the visually impaired how to use technology. But what she'd really like...
EAGLE: Income, a job - for either my husband or I to have a good paying job so that we're not dependent on the government.
FESSLER: But try as she might, this 43-year-old can't seem to find work, even though she has a bachelor's degree in special education. Eagle, whose husband is also visually impaired, blames employers who don't think she can do the job. But she also blames the Americans with Disabilities Act.
EAGLE: Employers are scared to hire us because they don't know what kind of accommodations we require. And if they don't meet what we consider to be reasonable accommodations, they're afraid we'll sue them.
FESSLER: And there is a vigorous debate over why so many individuals with disabilities are unemployed. According to the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, about 29 percent of disabled adults worked in 1990 compared with about 15 percent in 2013. And those employment rates are much lower than they are for Americans without disabilities.
MICHAEL MORRIS: Attitudes change slowly. And I think there's not one single reason why there is that gap.
FESSLER: Michael Morris is executive director of the National Disability Institute in Washington, D.C. He says some employers are hesitant to hire people with disabilities. But he says it's also true that disabled students are less likely to graduate from high school and college, putting them at a disadvantage in a competitive workplace. He says another obstacle is that those receiving federal disability payments can't save more than $2,000, or they risk losing their benefits, including medical care.
MORRIS: The decision becomes, wow, I think I'm just going to stay put where I am, which is the equivalent of a life sentence of poverty.
FESSLER: Still, Morris says the outlook is improving. Congress passed a law that will soon allow some disabled adults to save more. Federal contractors are required to hire more disabled workers. And Morris says a growing number of students with disabilities are earning degrees and getting internships.
MORRIS: That actual experience does more to change attitudes, change perception - right through to their HR offices that say, wow, hidden talent pool. Let's explore it.
FESSLER: But other things still make work difficult, like a lack of transportation. Debbie Eagle and her husband use a special lift service provided by the city of Tulsa. But she says it can be unpredictable and time-consuming.
EAGLE: A good deal of my life is spent waiting for rides.
FESSLER: Which doesn't really work very well if you have a job. One of her colleagues at the center, 27-year-old Emeka Nnaka, is a paraplegic who used to rely on the service. Recently, he got a van that he can drive himself. And he says it's made all the difference in his efforts to get his undergraduate degree and go on to graduate school.
EMEKA NNAKA: And not having to depend on other people for so much. I'm getting classes done at a faster rate.
FESSLER: He thinks that will allow him to move into the workforce sooner, which is why Oklahoma's Department of Rehabilitation Services paid to make his van accessible and is also covering many of Nnaka's college expenses. Caseworker Valyncia Wilson says they want to help Nnaka and others like him become more independent.
VALYNCIA WILSON: To get them careers, substantial and competitive employment, competitive pay so that they're able to care for not only themselves but for their families.
FESSLER: Michael Morris of the National Disability Institute says other states have similar programs, although not everyone qualifies, and there's often a waiting list. He thinks it could take another 25 years before people achieve the full economic independence envisioned by the ADA. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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