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Executive Summary

Four years after its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is reshaping employment, governmental services, telecommunications, public accommodations, and, perhaps most important, public attitudes. The ADA is the most comprehensive federal law to address discrimination against an estimated 49 million Americans with disabilities. Its implementation remains the subject of intense public policy debate, particularly in light of the larger and related debates on health care and welfare reform.

Since 1990 The Annenberg Washington Program has examined the role of communications policy in implementing the ADA as part of the Program's ongoing study of communication policies in health and social issues. In 1991 the Program issued a report on telecommunication services mandated by the ADA, and the Program published a white paper on the challenges involved in implementing the ADA's employment provisions in 1993. In 1994 the Program issued a report on communications technology, inclusive education, and the ADA.

This report builds on these efforts by examining the pre- and post-ADA employment practices of Sears, Roebuck and Co., while focusing on the relationship of ADA implementation, communications policy, and information technology issues. During a two-year period the author used interviews, observation, and archival data as sources. Sears, which employs an estimated 20,000 people with disabilities provides a case study of a company with a long-standing commitment to its employees with disabilities.

By studying the corporate behavior of Sears, this report attempts to (a) stimulate discussion and debate of the communication issues that Sears and other companies face regarding ADA implementation; (b) give hard data--much of which, including specific cost information on accommodations, has been compiled for the first time in this report--and qualitative information resources to companies as they attempt to meet and transcend ADA compliance issues; and (c) identify the implications of Sears ADA-related experiences, policies, and philosophy relative to future practices in this critical employment area.

As described in Part Three of the report, the following five core implications are drawn from Sears' experiences:
(1) The impact of the ADA on American business is evolutionary, not revolutionary.
(2) Universal design and access, not retrofitted technology, fulfill the objective of including people with and without disabilities into productive work force participation.
(3) Efforts to educate management and the work force about the ADA and the capabilities of people with disabilities must be based on facts, not paternalism and myths.
(4) Starting from a base of ADA compliance, companies can look beyond compliance to transcendence by fostering independence, not handouts and dependence, and by providing meaningful career opportunities for people with disabilities.
(5) Far from creating onerous legal burdens, the ADA can provide employers and employees with a framework for dispute avoidance and resolution, not the explosion of litigation that some observers predicted.

Each core implication is based on both progress and challenges that Sears and other companies have experienced in their efforts to comply with and transcend the ADA.