Confronting Barriers: An Interview With Lex Frieden

December 6, 2011

Lex Frieden helped craft the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The act was born partly out of Frieden's 1984-88 service as director of the National Council on the Handicapped (now the National Council on Disability), as well as his own experience of being denied admission to one university because, after becoming a quadriplegic in a 1967 auto accident, he used a wheelchair. He is currently a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Frieden recently spoke with freelance writer Susan Hauser.

Workforce Management: Did the ADA come out of your frustrations as a person who confronted barriers?

Lex Frieden: Many other people with disabilities probably shared similar experiences throughout the 1970s and early '80s. After I was turned down by one university, the dean at the University of Tulsa proposed putting all my classes in a building without steps. It was much easier for them to move the class from the building with the steps than it was to move me into the building with the steps. It seemed so obvious after the fact.

WM: Is that how the ADA term "reasonable accommodation" came into being?

Frieden: Exactly. The concept came from my experience at the university and from other people's experience of being able to solve problems without necessarily having to create a flat earth. The idea that reasonable accommodations can be made for virtually anyone with any type of impairment, it's a fairly logical concept and it's an idea that seems to be generally understood.

WM: What problems still remain for disabled workers after 21 years of the ADA?

Frieden: Unemployment. Even when the employment rate was better than it is now, people with disabilities were still unemployed at the same rate they are now. I'm fearful that employers don't look simply at the job they have to offer, but consider the things a person can't do, even though those things are not related to the primary functions of the job.

WM: What should employers know about people with disabilities?

Frieden: That they are better educated now than ever. Their preparation is at least as good, in some cases better, than the preparation of kids without disabilities. Also, that many people who did have challenges in the workplace years ago are now able to compensate for their disabilities by using the new technologies.

WM: What's the solution for their underemployment?

Frieden: I think we need more employer education. I believe that people with disabilities are very often more motivated than nondisabled people, simply because they've already been challenged. I think employers may be missing an opportunity by not recognizing that.

WM: What were the main objections to passage of the ADA?

Frieden: Objections came from several fronts. The transit industry was afraid the provisions would be too strict. There were other objections from people who felt that the definition of disability was too broad. Small employers were afraid that the expenses associated with providing accommodation, not necessarily to employees, but to patrons, would be overwhelming for them.

WM: How did you address those concerns?

Frieden: When we talked to small-business people about their specific issues, we could help them understand that the law wasn't universal in the sense that not everybody who had steps had to put in an elevator. They simply had to provide some kind of reasonable accommodation, which might be to take a carry-out menu down to the bottom of the steps, take somebody's order and bring them the carry-out food.

WM: What about big businesses?

Frieden: Many larger employers had already established a commitment to employ people with disabilities. They really had no objections to the ADA and felt like it didn't change the way they did business. As a matter of fact, the Sears corporation had done studies of their workforce and found that their employees with disabilities were more dependable and had less sick time than the nondisabled employees. That was significant.

WM: For the ADA's 20th anniversary, you conducted a nationwide survey on the impact of the act on the disabled community. Were there any surprises in the results?

Frieden: I was surprised at the impact that the ADA has had on people's lives. Two-thirds of the population we serve felt that the ADA was the most significant thing that had happened in their lives in the past 20 years. Anybody can see the impact of the ADA. You see it when you see parking spaces reserved for people with disabilities; you see it when you see ramps that are integrated into the entrances of public and private facilities; you see it when you go into a hotel room and the doorway is actually wide enough to get through; you see it when you're in a bar and there's captioning for a sporting event on television. Those are all things that have occurred as a result of the ADA.

WM: Is there anything in the law that you would tweak?

Frieden: Not now. The tweaking has been done. The law has been recently amended and the amendments have made some very constructive changes in terms of how disability is defined. Now it's easier for employers to understand their obligations and easier for people with disabilities to see that they must be reasonable in terms of their own requests. I think the amendments will reduce litigation.

WM: How does hiring people with disabilities affect the economy?

Frieden: If they're supported in the workforce, not only are they no longer depending on taxpayer paid benefits, they're actually paying taxes. What can be better than that?

WM: What's the real value of hiring people with disabilities?

Frieden: People with disabilities share that vision for America that most Americans have, and they share that vision for their families, their communities and themselves. And the only way they can reach those goals is through work. If they're systematically kept out of the workforce, that changes their own initiative and it also changes the economy radically.

Susan Hauser is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. To comment email