“Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” – President George H.W. Bush signing the ADA in July 1990, 30 years ago.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA helped make life a little better for people with disabilities in America.
ADA is 30 Years Old
Today’s news is filled with stories of discrimination and marginalization of a variety of people. Of course, people with disabilities have a long history of exclusion and discrimination, too. Before laws like the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) existed, people with disabilities were excluded from the community in a variety of ways. The impact of those laws goes far beyond simple facility access, like ramps and door-opening buttons, which often come to mind. One of the ADA’s authors, Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr., lists some examples of disability discrimination in the Washington Post:
- Many people with disabilities were denied the right to vote.
- Governments often denied people with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and other conditions the right to marry.
- Until the 1970’s, cities all across America had “Ugly” laws making it illegal for many people with disabilities to go out in public.
Hard to believe this was just 30 years ago and many of the people who fought for this legislation are still around today.
The ADA expanded protections for people with disabilities. But while the ADA came into being 30 years ago, Section 504 began the expansion of disability rights 50 years ago. The ADA could not have existed without Section 504.
Did you know people with disabilities are the largest minority group? But before regulations like Section 504, many did not see people with disabilities as such. Additionally, they did not think excluding people with disabilities was discrimination. Instead, people thought the exclusion from education, work, and community access was simply the unavoidable result of having a disability.
Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act banned discrimination against people with disabilities in establishments that received federal funds. It was the first time the government officially recognized people with disabilities as a legitimate minority.
What’s more is that members of the disability rights movement fought for this law. The Health, Education, and Welfare Department (HEW) waited years to sign 504 regulations. Because of this, activists decided to hold sit-ins at HEW buildings. Led by Judy Heumann, Kitty Cone, and Mary Jane Owen (a University of New Mexico alumna) 150 people sat in at the HEW building in San Francisco for almost a month. Their allies like the Black Panthers, labor activists, politicians and Vietnam veterans helped the cause.
The Father of the ADA
Entrepreneur and activist Justin Dart was denied a teaching license because he used a wheelchair. He served as vice chair for the National Council on Disability. In this position, he traveled to every state in the county to get stories and input from people with disabilities. It was for this work and information that he became known as “the Father of the ADA.”
During the first ADA hearing in Congress, testimony came in from all over the country about personal examples of disability discrimination:
- A manager refused one woman with Cerebral Palsy entry to a movie theater. Her mother told the manager “I think that sounds like discrimination,” and he replied “I don’t care what it sounds like.”
- A breast cancer survivor lost her job, and other workplaces would not hire her with her cancer history.
- A family who lost a child to AIDS could not find anyone to bury their child.
- A paralyzed Vietnam veteran could not get on the bus, or in his housing project. Nor could he get a job. He had fought to protect freedom for everyone but himself.
- Senators Harkin and Kennedy talked about their experiences of having family members with disabilities. Representative Tony Coelho also brought up his life with epilepsy.
The Capitol Crawl: A Turning Point for the ADA
The ADA passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority in 1989, but then stalled in the House of Representatives due to concerns from business leaders. In light of this, some activists had enough. They chose to show what inaccessibility truly meant to them.
On March 12, 1990, activists from the disability rights group ADAPT got out of their wheelchairs, crutches, and other assistive equipment; got on their hands and knees, and crawled up the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Jennifer Keelan, an 8-year-old, took part, saying as she crawled up: “I’ll take all night if I have to!” This was a decisive action which helped pass the ADA.
The ADA at 30: Access and Visibility
Professor Lex Friedan at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that the biggest impact of the ADA has been improvements in access to public facilities. One person surveyed said that, because of the ADA, people with disabilities are more visible in the community.
There’s Still More to Do
While our country has made great strides for disability rights over the past 30 years since enactment of the ADA, there is still more progress to make. Freidan’s report notes that disability leaders surveyed were most disappointed with progress on equal employment. The statistics for this ring true. 81% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for example, do not participate in the workforce. And even today, workers with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed than workers without disabilities. In fact, the Brookings Institution said that new artificial intelligence technology that corporations use in hiring could actually hurt the chances of hiring someone with a disability.
Adelante works with people with disabilities to make a better outcome for all. We provide a full range of services to allow people more access to the community as volunteers or employees, in addition to a variety of community resources. If you would like to hire a person with a disability, or you know a person with an intellectual or developmental disability looking for a job, we can help. Visit our website on supported employment to learn more. You can also support Adelante’s efforts by using our business services or making a donation to our nonprofit work.