Written by: Jim McDonough and James Schmeling
The coming drawdown of our military will see one million additional service members separate from military service over the next five years, and create additional opportunities for employers and disabled veterans alike when it comes to efforts to reintegrate them into today’s workforce. We know and understand that about 25 percent of all veterans have incurred some form of service-connected disability due to their wounds, injuries and illnesses incurred through military service. As we mark the anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we are reminded of our continuing obligation to protect veterans with disabilities from unfair discrimination in the workplace. The ADA and its companion legislation, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), remind us that while laws exist to guide the proper conduct of employers, we all must do our part to participate in their implementation. Our disabled veterans have endured many difficult challenges in their journey to recovery from war’s wounds; the workplace should not in itself be one of them.
In addition to returning home to careers, our veterans are returning to communities and to participate in civic life. When they’ve incurred wounds, injuries and illnesses, they join the ranks of people protected by anti-discrimination laws – the very laws of the society they swore to protect.
Many veterans who were wounded in service – including those with invisible injuries – don’t know they are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (usually ADAAA in legal literature, but referred to herein as ADA) and other civil rights laws. Importantly, the law is an equal opportunity law intended to stop discrimination and stigma from preventing full participation in society. The ADA doesn’t define disability in the same way as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or the Department of Defense. It isn’t about percentage of disability, but rather about major life activities that may be limited (often by societal barriers that may be removed), and the obligation of society, including business and industry, government and community to take reasonable steps to make participation possible.
In employment, that may mean employers making reasonable accommodations to change the work environment, modify duties or provide assistive devices to veteran employees who disclose their disabilities and request accommodations. For customers of business and industry, it may mean that businesses need to change policies or processes to enable full participation, making reasonable modifications to their regular activities, or removing architectural barriers. And when veterans with disabilities want to participate in civic life, those things involving state and local governments, programs and offices are required to make their programs and services accessible, including government meetings. While our government is not required to make all of its buildings barrier-free, they are required to change where or how people can participate so long as it isn’t an undue burden or a fundamental change in the program.
The ADA, signed into law on July 26, 1990, exists to protect the rights of wounded military service veterans and allow them to fully participate in society. However, most veterans, even those with severe injuries, don’t think of themselves as disabled. The ADA protects them even so, as it has for 23 years. Happy Birthday, ADA!