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A Brief History of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Jillian Abel
Jul 15, 2019 · 5 min read

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into effect 29 years ago on July 26th, 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that made it illegal to discriminate against people based on disability in the areas of employment, public accommodation, public services, transportation and telecommunications. People with the following disabilities are protected under the ADA: deafness, blindness, an intellectual disability, partially or completely missing limbs or mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Not all of these disorders were included in the Act at its origin. Through the years, it has been expanded to demonstrate what constitutes a disability in the US.

Before the ADA came to fruition, the disability rights movement relied solely on grassroots efforts in order to be seen and accommodated. The 1940s until the 1960s held the mindset “out of sight, out of mind” when it came to people with disabilities. After World War II, veterans began lobbying the government for medical care and rehabilitation. The scale of these protests brought disability rights to the forefront for the first time.

Throughout the 1960s, disabilities activists called for national initiatives that would end the practice of placing disabled children in asylums and institutions. They also wanted to put policies in place to prevent physical barriers from limiting accessibility. At this time, there were no accessible public restrooms nor public telephones (which were often too high for people in wheelchairs to reach and had no braille signage).

After years of fighting for representation and equal rights, people with disabilities were finally able to get a public policy passed in their favor. In 1973, Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was approved, banning discrimination on the basis of disability for those who received federal funding. This new policy brought about the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which mandated equal access to public services. Shortly thereafter, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975. Not only did this act declare that every child had the right to an education, it also mandated the full inclusion of children with disabilities in public schools.

In 1986, The National Council on Disability sent a report to Congress listing recommendations to be added to the equal opportunity law, which specifically focused on people with disabilities. The goal was to create an act that would combine a number of pieces of legislation to form a broad civil rights protection for the rights of people with disabilities. In 1988, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was presented to the 100th Congress. A year later it was revised and introduced to the 101st Congress and passed in the Senate. Then in 1990, it passed the House and was signed into effect.

In 1991, the following regulations of the ADA were issued:

  • Regulations for Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits private employers, State and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities.
  • Transportation regulations for Title II and Title III were issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • Title II ADA regulations mean that disabled people are protected from discrimination in places such as: Police stations, Fire stations, Schools, Courts, Parks, Polling places, Stadiums, and Sidewalks
  • Title II also requires that the programs, services, and activities of state and local governments are accessible to people with disabilities. We often think about accessibility in the physical sense (such as ramps and doorways that accommodate wheelchairs),but not all barriers are physical. For example:
  • Public meetings without assistive listening systems or sign language interpreters may present challenges for people who are deaf.
  • A state website that cannot be used by persons who use screen readers or text enlargement software can create barriers for people who are blind or who have low vision.
  • Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabilities in places of public accommodations, commercial facilities, and private entities that offer certain examination and courses related to educational and occupational certification.
  • Commercial facilities are only subject to the requirement that new constructions and alterations conform to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
  • Regulations for Title IV were issued by Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which requires telephone companies to provide continued voice transmission relay services. In addition, Title IV requires that federally funded television public service messages be closed-captioned.

A year later, Title I regulations went into effect for organizations with 25 or more employees. Title II and Title III of the ADA also took effect. Then in 1993 and 1994, Title III and Title IV took effect, respectively.

After 14 years, The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 to counteract the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of disability and provide broad protection from discrimination. A year later, the ADAAA went into effect, which means that it is now easier for a person with a disability to establish that they have a disability in order to get coverage or medical treatment.

Over the next 11 years, the ADA made updates to their regulations. In 2015, the American with Disabilities Act celebrated its 25th Anniversary. Now it’s been 29 years since the ADA first came into existence. More people with disabilities are in the workforce today than at any other point in the last 30 years. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which stems from the ADA, provides increased support for students with disabilities and their teachers and is allowing more people with disabilities to receive higher education and access to the tools they need. Accessible technology development is now included in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. All of this has been possible because of the dedication of the National Council on Disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA was created with the intent of providing quality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. It’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come, but there’s still work to do in terms of creating a truly inclusive world.

TMI Consulting, Inc.

TMI is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy based…

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