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Part Three:

Five Core Implications for the 21st Century

This report has highlighted the successes and challenges in Sears' programmatic effort to diversify its work force. As Sears Chairman Brennan says, "Our corporate culture has permitted us to be a laboratory to show results." Although the experiences of one such laboratory may be insufficient for drawing sweeping conclusions about the ADA and corporate America, they suggest five core implications for management, workers, and institutions.

Drawn from Sears' experiences and confirmed in other empirical studies of the ADA, the five implications are as follows:

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 opportunity and 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 resolution and litigation avoidance, not the explosion of litigation that some observers predicted.

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

1. Evolutionary Not Revolutionary

CEO Brennan sums up the view of the ADA's evolutionary rather than revolutionary effects: "The ADA was something whose time had come, but we were always out in front on these issues to meet the needs of our customers and employees."

Everyone at Sears who participated in this report agreed that the ADA is having a positive effect, although some associates expressed a benign indifference to the act. "I don't even know what's in it [the ADA]," says Don Mott, a computer programmer who is blind. "I don t think it's had any impact on Sears. The company was doing these things for people with disabilities before the ADA."

"I haven't noticed any difference in people's attitudes since the ADA," observes Alan Sprecher, another computer programmer who is blind. "Most people don't know the requirements or implications of the law until someone makes an issue of it."

Import Manager Brad Shorser, who is also blind, is a bit more upbeat. "The ADA has helped raise the consciousness of hiring managers, who now seem more willing to accept people with disabilities. But it's not just the ADA. It's everything that led up to it, including the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Combined with Sears' policies, the ADA is helping to break down psychological barriers about people with disabilities."

Mary Ann Stephen, an administrative assistant who is visually impaired, agrees. "The ADA is helping people get information. People with disabilities used to be afraid to talk about their disabilities or get help or information. Now we re not as afraid. There's somewhere to go."

Tony Norris, a Footwear Department executive who is a quadriplegic, echoes this sentiment. "The ADA has been good in awakening the public to people with disabilities. People don't shy away from us as much as they used to."

Remaining Challenges

Lingering prejudices about hidden cognitive and mental disabilities are preventing many people from enjoying full productive participation in the workplace. (For more information, see the Special Feature). Even among people with disabilities who have achieved integration into the work force, a perceived glass ceiling limits their career advancement, and a sense of separateness is difficult to overcome.

"I don't know that I've ever been or ever will be part of the gang," says Sprecher. "Being disabled, you don't fit in 100 percent." Shorser agrees. "I don't expect we'll ever get to the point where prejudice against people with disabilities disappears completely."

A sense of frustration or regret is evident in talking with some Sears employees with disabilities; some feel that the ADA by itself may never change lingering attitudes. "It can be frustrating to admit your limitations," says Shorser, "even in an environment like Sears where you are encouraged to reach your full potential."

While an inclusive corporate culture such as Sears' helps speed the ADA evolution, completing the process will require more intensive education and communication between management and the work force.

2. Universal Design and Access, Not Retrofitted Technology

The ADA encourages equality of access: to employment opportunities, to facilities, to information. Often the best solutions for providing access are those that have universal application, especially with regard to facility design and information technology. (For more information, see the Special Feature.) Universal design and access solutions make possible a level playing field on which all people can participate and compete based on their abilities, not on their disabilities, as noted below:

Remaining Challenges

Solutions in universal design and access should be proactive, anticipating the needs of people with and without disabilities. Such solutions can create a ripple effect throughout an organization, as they lead to applications that increase the productivity of all employees. Attempts at retrofitting old technology are less successful and often more costly.

3. Fact-Based Education, Not Paternalism and Myths

The issues of providing access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities have been shrouded in myths and misconceptions. In-depth case reports provide a process, a structure, and a model for other companies to educate their management and employees by using facts and empirical data that debunk the myths and shatter misconceptions.

"While earlier research, notably the Dupont Survey of Employment of People with Disabilities, demonstrated that employment of people with disabilities is good business, the Sears case history reflects the next generation of study to support this important conclusion," said Gerald D. Skoning, a partner at Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson and one of the founding board members of Project Access.

Fact-based education is not as simple as it sounds, however. Companies like Sears have found it difficult to establish objective systems to gather and analyze data. One of the shortcomings that became obvious in the preparation of this report was the lack of sophisticated databases to compile statistics on disabilities, accommodations, costs, and paybacks.

Remaining Challenges

Companies must continue to establish systems that objectively measure the costs and benefits of accommodating people with disabilities in their work forces. An important factor that remains unknown is the ADA's effect on the long-term, economic bottom line.

This question is now just beginning to be addressed. (For more information, see bottom-line calculations.) According to the most recent report on accommodation benefit-cost data by the Job Accommodation Network, a program of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, from the third quarter of 1992 through the first quarter of 1994, employers reported a median of $30 in benefits for every dollar spent on accommodations. 5 Furthermore, 42 percent of employers believed that they had received more than $10,000 in business value from the accommodations they had made for employees with disabilities.

4. Opportunity and Independence, Not Handouts and Dependence

The ADA plays an important catalytic role in creating a culture of independence among people with disabilities in the workplace, supplanting the old stereotypes of make-work jobs and handouts that bred dependence.

Companies like Sears, with a corporate culture that encourages work force diversity and emphasizes the inclusion of people with disabilities, transcend the minimal compliance requirements of the ADA by providing meaningful career development opportunities for all employees, based on what they can do, not limited by what they cannot do.

Remaining Challenges

Qualified people with disabilities remain underrepresented in the American work force. Companies must continue to find effective ways to ensure their meaningful participation in productive employment. For instance, accessible technology that transcends ADA compliance has implications beyond the work site: telemedicine will bring doctors to geographically isolated workers to help reduce chronic unemployment, underemployment, and dependence among people with disabilities. Additional dialogue and research are also needed on the emerging work force of the next century, not only for people with disabilities, but for all underrepresented individuals in society.

5. Dispute Resolution and Litigation Avoidance

One crucial aspect of transcending the ADA is to provide alternative methods of dispute resolution to help avoid costly litigation and to foster an environment of cooperation rather than confrontation in managing disability issues in the workplace. Through mid-1994, Sears had encountered six ADA-related employee lawsuits. Given Sears' large number of employees with disabilities, this low incidence is likely the result of two factors:

Remaining Challenges

Study is needed on the role of education and communication in diffusing, avoiding, and resolving ADA-related disputes between employers and employees; helping people understand their rights and obligations under the act; and empowering people to make informed decisions.

Dispute resolution programs must also become more sensitive to the range of physical and mental disabilities and their specific impact on the dispute resolution process. Preliminary indications are that many employers are using alternative dispute resolution under the ADA to enhance equality of job opportunity. Alternative dispute resolution processes are being used that lead to cost-effective, reasonable accommodations enabling qualified employees with disabilities to work. 7