As we approach 22nd Anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this Thursday, now is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made.
The ADA, a broad civil rights law for people with disabilities, was enacted in 1990 and is the most comprehensive civil rights legislation passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On July 26, 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law, he said, “let the shameful wall of discrimination come down today,” and life for people with disabilities slowly began to change.
Much like the discrimination that people of color and women experienced in this country, people with disabilities faced blatant discrimination. These practices would continue unless American society deemed it illegal to do so. The Civil Rights Act and Title IX provided protections for people of color and women, respectively, and that experience helped teach people with disabilities how to organize and push for over a decade to achieve the passage of the ADA.
As each of the Act’s titles began being implemented throughout the country, lawsuits were filed under the new legislation alleging employment discrimination and lack of access to public accommodations including public transportation. This new body of case law became fertile ground to support many more challenges which eventually led to the historic Olmstead decision in the Supreme Court.
The 1999 Olmstead decision was based on an ADA lawsuit against the state of Georgia on behalf of two women with intellectual disabilities who lived in a state institution but wanted to live independently in the community. The suit claimed that the ADA requires that the state must provide opportunities for people with disabilities to live in the “least restrictive environment." It said that people with disabilities have protection under the law to make the decision to live in the community rather than institutions.. L.C. vs. Olmstead made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Olmstead decision was a significant advancement for people with disabilities.
Today, as a society, we are richer and significantly more diverse as a result of the inclusion of people with disabilities into the social mainstream. Prior to the ADA It was the rule rather than the exception for people with disabilities to live their lives in institutions away from their families and friends. Although there are still many lingering instances of people living in institutions, that trend has been significantly reversed.
Before the passage of the ADA, the vast majority of public places and services like restaurants, theaters, municipal buildings, hotels and public transportation were totally inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility-related disabilities. Today, this too has dramatically changed. People with disabilities can expect to take accessible public transportation to a baseball game and go out for dinner afterwards without being confronted with physical barriers. People who are deaf and hard of hearing are no longer excluded from basic telecommunications including the Internet.
These are a few examples of why the ADA was necessary and how the quality of life for people with disabilities has been significantly enriched over the past two decades. As with any law, however, we must be vigilant about its enforcement. This takes hard work and organization. I am grateful to the thousands of disability organizations and individuals around the country who are dedicated to safeguarding and advancing community inclusion as afforded by the law.
However, one aspect of the ADA remains largely unaddressed. Although Title I of the ADA guarantees protection against discrimination in employment and guarantees access to “reasonable accommodations” (such as a sign language interpreter or physical modifications to a work environment) once you are on the job, employment remains the unfulfilled promise of the ADA.
People with disabilities are the largest and poorest minority in the country. This is largely due to a substantially higher unemployment rate for people with disabilities — 30% versus the national rate of 8% in the general public. Recently, Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the original authors of the ADA, released a report that reflects this troubling fact and calls for sweeping changes in the public and private sectors. Undoubtedly, this will serve as a motivating force for people with disabilities, employers, lawmakers and others. Perhaps this will serve as the blueprint to tackle the problem of poverty and unemployment for people with disabilities in this country.
So as we celebrate our many accomplishments within the disability community over the past 22 years, let's not forget how much work there is left to be done. Let us continue to fulfill a promise made on this date exactly 22 years ago; that all people with disabilities will have equal access to all social and economic aspects of the American Dream.