ADA 25: A Quarter Century of Advocating for All People with Disabilities

A half century ago marks the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 (amended in 1973 by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act).  Twenty-five years later, and 25 years ago, the most important piece of civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.  The date was July 26, 1990.  The title sheet signed read, “One Hundred First Congress of the United States of America, at the record session. An Act: To establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.”

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     According to the federal government, the ADA “…prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.”  The ADA mandates the following:

  • Title I: Equal opportunity and nondiscrimination in employment
  • Title II: Full access to government facilities and services, including transportation
  • Title III: Full access to all places of public accommodation, including commercial establishment
  • Title IV: The ability to use all forms of telecommunications technology, including telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD) and video relay service (VRS).
  • Title V: Forbidding any coercion or retaliation in enforcing the provisions of ADA.

ADA also sets standards on accessibility for government and private buildings of public accommodation, including wheelchair ramps, entrances, and playgrounds.

ADA gained strength in 1999, after a Supreme Court case, Olmstead v.L.C., ruled that people with mental illness have a disability; they now had the right to live in least-restrictive setting, often community residences rather than state-mandated institutions.  Often known simply as “Olmstead,” the legislation “requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to ensure that persons with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

ADA 25 Slogan

Let’s Celebrate!
In 2000 and 2001, the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History curated an interactive exhibit, “The Disability Rights Movement.”   The display documented years of civil protest to raise awareness, the right of self-determination and autonomy, parent activism and advocacy, how children with disabilities have been treated over the years, the role of technology (in communication, mobility) in ensuring full access for people with disabilities, and how the ADA set out to guarantee those rights people had been fighting for.

This year, ADA 25 celebrations are being held in the nation’s capital and throughout the country.  The ADA Legacy Project and ADA National Network are dedicated to tracking these events.  A gala of the arts in the nation’s capital is the 25/40 Celebration.  And in New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio declared July Disability Pride Month.  An interesting and noteworthy event in recognition of ADA 25 is [dis]ABLED Inside Out a photographic documentary to portray and focus on the abilities and individuality of people with a disability. Leopoldine was born in Paris, France, but came to the US to study law.  She has been very impressed by the fact that all public places are accessible to her and her wheelchair.  The Inside Out project has become a worldwide movement.  Another online effort is the DisabilityVisiblity Project, inspired by StoryCorps, to give people the chance to tell their own stories in their own voices.

On Tuesday, July 21, President Barack Obama, praised the progress of ADA in a rousing speech, declaring “A new American Independence Day.”  The President also recognized the importance of the work we still need to do to live up to our promise of employment for persons with disabilities.

A Brief Look in Time
   Over the first century and a half of U.S. history, life for most people with disabilities was fraught with misery and challenges.  During that time, nearly everyone with a cognitive disability was consigned to a life sentence in a state institution.  A pioneering investigative reporter named Nelly Bly wrote Ten Days in a Mad-House; this gripping 1887 account exposed the horrors of these asylums.  Helen Keller was one of the lucky few and very much the exception.  In 1899, a studious lady from upstate New York named Elizabeth Farrell left a comfortable middle-class life and traveled to the fetid slums of New York City’s Lower East Side.  There, she met Lillian Wald; both women established the Henry Street School, a highly progressive boarding school to teach children, where students with severe disabilities could learn and develop practical vocational and household skills.  It was her tireless advocacy that laid the foundations of the special-education laws of today.

The history of disability rights in employment in the U.S. goes back to 1920.  President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Fess Act, which provided for World War I veterans disabled in action.  However, during this time the eugenics movement gained acceptance.  Authorities and scientists alike called for the forced sterilization of “feebleminded, insane, depressed, mentally handicapped, and epileptic people.”  The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 called for sheltered workshops for all people with disabilities, not just the blind.  Although much progress continued to be made in the decades that followed, particularly in the area of special education, a comprehensive law offering access to all people with disabilities to all aspects of life was needed.  Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin set out to correct that when he authored ADA, as he stated in a powerful speech.

  The Great Depression brought about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935, which provided families with money to help support a loved one unable to make a living independently (and extended in 1960, with the Social Security Disability Insurance to provide for people with all disabilities).

Yet, despite all the good ADA has done, a large proportion of people without jobs are those with disabilities.  More than two-thirds of American adults with disabilities are “striving to work,” according to a national employment survey being released just before the landmark legislation protecting their rights turns 25.

Yet, despite all the good ADA has done, a large proportion of people without jobs are those with disabilities.  More than two-thirds of American adults with disabilities are “striving to work,” according to a national employment survey being released just before the landmark legislation protecting their rights turns 25.

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One thought on “ADA 25: A Quarter Century of Advocating for All People with Disabilities

  1. Pingback: National Disability Employment Awareness Month – For the Good of Individuals, Society, and the Country | Celebrating Individual Abilities

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