Mass. lags badly in workplace accessibility for disability community

October 23, 2021 Article in Commonwealth Magazine by Carol Steinberg

It’s time for lawmakers to address barriers that keep people from jobs

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. NDEAM’s roots go back to 1945. It is held each October to “commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy.” Seventy-six years later, however, many people with disabilities in Massachusetts are unable to “contribute” to “America’s workplaces and economy” because Massachusetts law does not require workplaces that aren’t open to the public to be accessible—even if they are in new or substantially renovated buildings.

I have worked as a lawyer since 1980. For the first 15 years of my career, I had no trouble getting into or moving around the offices I worked in. In 1995, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). This condition caused slowly progressing disability. I went from a lopsided gait, to a cane, to a walker, to a manual and then a power wheelchair during the 10 years after my diagnosis. Thankfully, all the offices I worked in during those years had elevators, so that my diminishing mobility when it came to vertical access was accommodated. Bathrooms, however, were a different story.

When I started using a manual wheelchair, I was having a lot of trouble fitting into the bathroom in the office my law partner and I shared. My partner came in one day with the tools to take the bathroom door off its hinges and change its swing from in to out. (I can’t say that we asked the landlord’s permission.) Although I still had trouble using it because the bathroom lacked grab bars, at least I could then get in. There was a handicapped-accessible bathroom somewhere in the 10-story building but it was on a wholly different floor in someone else’s office so it was totally inconvenient for me. Massachusetts law does not require offices that are not open to the public to have accessible bathrooms.

When my law partner and I left that space, our choices of where we could go were quite limited. There was no way, of course. that we could rent an office that wasn’t in an elevatored building. And by this time I was using a power chair so the bathroom was crucial. It couldn’t be on another floor and it had to be large and equipped with grab bars. Many buildings, even if they were new or renovated, were out of the question.

Luckily, we found a mid-sized elevatored building where the kind owners were willing to create a small ramp for me at the front door, a disabled parking space, and to put grab bars in the large bathroom. But many are not so lucky.

There has been much talk lately about the choice people are facing between remote and in-person work. Many are choosing to physically go back to their workplaces because of the social interaction they have there, the water-cooler chatter they have missed, and the more effective collaboration they are able to have with colleagues in person.

But a lot of people with disabilities do not have this choice. They have never been able to find a job because Massachusetts law does not require workplace accessibility. And not everyone can depend on the kindness of strangers.

A scientist friend of mine with MS tells me that several years ago, when she was looking for work in the Massachusetts biotech industry, she found a significant barrier to her employment. A company that was hiring wanted her to come in for an interview. The company was located on the second floor of a building that had no elevator. Since she found walking up a flight of stairs challenging because her MS was at a stage where she walked with difficulty with a cane, she inquired if the company was planning on adding an elevator or moving to a new location that had an elevator or was on the first floor. They were not adding an elevator or moving. As a result, she could not even consider interviewing or working there.

My friend has no “choice” to return to in-person work. Because of her mobility impairment, she couldn’t get the job she wanted in the first place.

Other colleagues with mobility impairments have all had limited options when it comes to employment. They either have always worked in the disability advocacy arena, whether they wanted to or not, or have had to work for large corporations in high-rise elevatored buildings when they would have loved the freedom to work elsewhere. People with disabilities are pigeonholed into jobs they don’t freely choose or they can’t find a job at all because of the lack of accessibility.

In 1968, 22 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Massachusetts was way ahead of the nation when it created the Architectural Access Board (AAB). The AAB’s’ regulations, which are very effective as they are enforced by local building inspectors during the permitting process, were “designed to provide full and free use of buildings and facilities so that persons with disabilities may have the education, employment, living and recreational opportunities necessary to be as self-sufficient as possible and to assume full responsibilities as citizens.”

But the AAB’s power has important limitations — including that it has no authority over workplaces, unless they are open to the public. I served on the AAB for nine years. My heart broke each time we met as we had to make countless jobs unattainable because of this limitation.

For example:

  • A local university spent $7 million to rehabilitate a beautiful old building and didn’t want to install an elevator to offices on the upper floors. The university president swore that these were workplaces not open to the public. We could not require access, making it impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to work in those offices.
  • On Nantucket, a lodging house for hotel employees which had entrance steps and only upper floor rooms was being completely renovated. We couldn’t insist that these barriers to accessibility be removed as part of the work.
  • A building on the Boston waterfront undergoing a major renovation had to be allowed to retain stairs throughout its offices, rendering hundreds of office jobs off-limits for people with mobility impairments.

According to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey compiled by the University of New Hampshire, only 37.7 percent of people with disabilities are employed in Massachusetts, compared to 80.2 percent of people without disabilities — a gap of 42.5 percentage points. This places us 40th out of 50 states. Perhaps this state’s deficiency has something to do with the fact that our law keeps many jobs out of reach of people with mobility impairments.

There are bills pending in the House and the Senate that would enforce accessibility in workplaces when the buildings in which they are located are new or substantially renovated. They are the Accessible MA Act (SB1629) and the Accessible Workplaces MA Act (HB2419). What better way to fulfill the promise of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, made 76 years ago, “to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy” than to pass this legislation that would give people with disabilities in Massachusetts the opportunity to work.

Carol Steinberg is an attorney and disability activist based in Boston.