The ADA was signed with great ceremony 25 years ago at the White House on July 26, 1990, with President George Bush marking the historic occasion with his quotable statement, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” The key word in this statement, to me, is finally. The best way I can think of to honor the ADA is to examine its history. The story is one of incredible persistence, tenacity, spirit, and unity.
Centuries of segregation, confinement, discrimination, and pervasive injustice preceded the ADA by centuries. It wasn’t until the Independent Living Movement, which began in the 1960’s, that oppressive attitudes were challenged, attitudes that presumed that people with disabilities needed to be segregated from their communities to live in institutions. The movement advocated successfully for services and resources that would give people with disabilities equal access to the same civil rights, choices, and opportunities as people without disabilities. Inspired by other civil rights movements of the time, local grassroots groups formed to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, and parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children.
With the passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 banned discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal funds. This was the first U.S. federal disabilities civil rights protection for people with disabilities. It was modelled after civil rights laws which banned discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin and sex by federal fund recipients.
Prior to Section 504, public policy characteristically addressed the needs of particular disabilities by category, based on diagnosis. Section 504 recognized that while there are major physical and mental variations in different disabilities, people with disabilities collectively faced similar discrimination in employment, education and access to society, and classified them together as a cohesive minority group. Today, people with disabilities comprise the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the U.S.
The ADA was introduced to Congress in 1988. Thousands of people with disabilities and their supporters worked tirelessly, organizing, stuffing and licking envelopes containing advocacy alerts, speaking and testifying, negotiating, lobbying, filing lawsuits, drafting legislation, attending protests, getting arrested, and doing whatever was necessary to gain attention and support for their passionate plight for long-overlooked equal rights for people with disabilities. When I think about the challenges of these dedicated revolutionaries, I am awestruck. People with all kinds of disabilities were determined to come together, despite the obstacles of lack of accessible transportation and barrier-free public architecture, assistive equipment and portable medical devices that were virtually non-existent prior to the ADA, to congregate, inform, and fight for their civil rights against a world that largely did not see them as equal citizens and did not understand or care about their rights and needs as human beings.
Before Section 504, it was assumed that the inequities faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment and lack of education, were inevitable consequences of the physical or mental limitations imposed by the disability itself. Section 504 recognized that the inferior social and economic status of people with disabilities was not linked to disability, but instead, was the result of societal barriers and prejudices. As Section 504 was promulgated, an awareness grew among disability rights supporters that it was not enough to remove policy barriers – it was imperative that the regulations mandated affirmative conduct to remove architectural and communication barriers and provide accommodations in order to ensure that people with disabilities had access to their full and equal civil rights.
The Section 504 regulations were issued in 1977 through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), forming the basis of the ADA. In the early 1980’s there were political efforts to de-regulate Section 504 as being too burdensome on the business community. After a tireless show of unity, commitment and force by the disability community, the Administration announced a halt to Section 504 de-regulation efforts. This marked an enormous victory for the disability rights movement.
During the 1980s, the longest legislative battle was fought over the Civil Rights Restoration Act (CRRA). The CRRA was introduced in 1984 and not passed until 1988. It sought to overturn a Supreme Court decision that had significantly restricted the reach of all legal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin, sex, and disability, by recipients of federal funds, which threatened to derail the civil rights protections advanced under Section 504. CRRA marked the first time in history that representatives of the disability community worked in leadership roles with representatives of minority and woman’s groups on a major piece of civil rights legislation.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) was amended in 1988 to include, for the first time, disability anti-discrimination provisions in a traditional civil rights statute that banned race discrimination. During these years working on the CRRA and the FHA, alliances were forged within the civil rights community that became critical in the fight for passage of the ADA, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights played an important leadership role in securing the ADA’s passage.
During the 1980s, it also became clear to the disability community that it should play a very active role in Supreme Court litigation to reinforce the validity of the 1977 HEW regulations around Section 504. In this timeframe, the disability community and supporters also successfully overturned, by legislation, several disability-specific negative Supreme Court rulings. The disability community became a political force to be reckoned with in Congress, in the voting booth, and in the media.
The ADA of 1990, as we know it today, went through numerous drafts, revisions, negotiations, and amendments since the first version was introduced in 1988. A national campaign was initiated to write “discrimination diaries,” calling for people with disabilities to document daily instances of inaccessibility and discrimination attesting to systematic discrimination raising awareness about oppressive societal barriers to daily living that prevented the full inclusion of people with disabilities.
On May 9, 1989 Senators Harkin and Durrenberger and Representatives Coelho and Fish jointly introduced the new ADA in the 101st Congress. From that moment, the disability community mobilized, organizing a multi-layered strategy for passage. A huge coalition was assembled by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), which included disability organizations, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), and various religious, labor and civic organizations.
A team of lawyers and advocates toiled over the complex legal issues that were continually emerging during the drafting of the ADA. Its underlying principle was to extend the basic protections provided to minorities and women under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to people with disabilities. Before the ADA, no federal law prohibited private sector discrimination against people with disabilities absent a federal grant or contract.
At Senate and House hearings, members of Congress heard from witness after witness testifying as to their experiences with discrimination. People with disabilities also came from far and wide across the country, at their own expense, to talk to members of Congress, advocate for the Bill, and explain why each provision was necessary. They slept on floors by night and visited Congressional offices by day. Those who couldn’t get to Washington attended town meetings, sent letters, and made phone calls.
A spectacular Senate vote of 76 to 8 took place on September 7, 1989, and the Bill went to the House where it was considered by an unprecedented four Committees. The perseverance and commitment of the disability movement never wavered through this grueling, exceedingly rigorous process. While civil rights protections for minorities and women had been passed in 1964, it was not until the signing of the ADA on July 26, 1990 that similar protections were afforded to people with disabilities.
With the passing of the ADA, people with disabilities, finally, no longer would be pushed out of sight and out of mind. The ADA presumes that people with disabilities want to work and are capable of working, want to be members of their communities and are capable of being members of their communities, and that exclusion and segregation cannot be tolerated. Thanks to the ADA, accommodating a person with a disability so they have equal access to the same rights, opportunities and choices as people without disabilities is no longer a considered an act of charity, but as a matter of basic civil rights.
The passionate vision for equality, inclusion, and social justice that drove the disability rights movement and the ADA of 1990 subsequently resulted in the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 and many progressive initiatives to advance the rights of people with disabilities. Even so, the vision for equality is far from fully realized. Until all people with any kind of disability routinely, without architectural, attitudinal, or other systematic barriers, are given access to full social, public, and workforce inclusion, this long-standing, hard-fought vision for civil rights equality continues to call for mobilized support and action.
This is a battle worth fighting. It is a matter of justice, ethics, and humanity. If that isn’t enough to convince businesses and other social and economic entities and constituencies that investing in ADA compliance is worthwhile, then we should be aware that people with disabilities and their networks comprise a $3 trillion market sector. Right now, there are close to 60 million Americans with disabilities, and they are the only minority group that any one of us can become a member of at any time. I can’t help thinking that those who did not care yesterday might wish they had tomorrow, which is a sobering thought. For me, it is just common sense that when we all pitch in to make sure everyone has an equal chance to participate fully and access equal opportunities to achieve success and maximal independence in our society and economy, we all reap the rewards.
So, happy 25th anniversary, ADA; cheers to all those who fought and won against so very many obstacles to make the ADA happen, and to those of us who seek to carry the lighted torch to continue to advance awareness, advocacy, and justice into a brighter and brighter future.