We can’t take civil rights laws for granted
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Twenty-eight years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) promised to end discrimination and remove labor market barriers for Americans with disabilities. President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990. It was a product of political entrepreneurship and activism by legislators in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Members of Congress came together to work with disability activists and advocates who were now part of a disability rights movement that had emerged following Congress’ enactment of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. For all these reasons, the ADA was a political triumph. But was it a policy a triumph?

Disability activists have always cautiously celebrated a law that was supposed to change everything. Since its enactment, opposing political and business forces have colluded to undermine its main tenets. Recently, Republicans sought to relax requirements that businesses provide reasonable accommodations such as making workplaces accessible, modifying work schedules or job reassignments - the chief mechanism in the ADA to help people with disabilities retain employment. They’ve sought to reverse decades-long efforts challenging biased Medicaid funding to nursing homes over in-home care, which further denies the right of people with disabilities to live in their communities rather than institutions. And the Trump administration relegated accessibility requirements to a Department of Justice “inactive” list, at the very least sending a message that enforcing civil rights is not a priority.

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These efforts have only served to weaken an already weak law. Just consider where we are today when it comes to the economic wellbeing of Americans with disabilities.

Americans with disabilities are less likely to be employed today than they were before the ADA took effect. When they do work, they are pushed into non-unionized, low-paying jobs. They earn considerably less than someone with similar characteristics but without a disability in the same occupation. And minority women with disabilities are at the bottom of a hierarchy of disadvantage, making them more likely to be in unstable employment and earn considerably less than others.

To make matters worse, the very tools available to Americans to protect themselves from these harms are simultaneously being eroded.

Unions have historically worked to reduce inequality among workers and have been especially helpful in ensuring accommodations that keep people with disabilities in their jobs while securing significantly better wages. However, unions have become increasingly less effective and Janus vs. AFSCME, the recent Supreme Court case ruling that collecting union fees from non-members violates the First Amendment, is but one recent example of an attack on organizations that have been called a historical guarantor of good wages.

Trump’s proposed budget cuts to legal services and Protection and Advocacy Services would make it increasingly difficult for victims of discrimination to access and mobilize their rights. Even so, the courts have been antagonistic towards disability discrimination cases. Last year, the court sided with the Trump administration and Coca-Cola refusing to hear a case about inaccessible vending machines. It also refused to hear an appeal regarding the “stay put rule” which allows a student with a disability to remain in a regular classroom while parents petition against a decision to place their child in a self-contained classroom.

We are approaching almost a half century of federal disability rights law. But political compromises, judicial undermining, and back stepping keep civil rights unsettled. It isn’t all doom and gloom however. Having kept vigil over these recent attacks, disability advocacy and social movement groups are accustomed to hopes and let downs; to the giant policy leaps forward like the ADA, and the many steps back that characterize the political history of disability rights in this country.

As many have remarked, now is the time for everyday Americans to mobilize. It is a reminder about why we need social movements not only to persuade, pressure, and guide social change, but also to protect legislative victories like the ADA from attack. When citizens do not take a watchful stand – when they take their civil rights for granted – it allows opposing forces to render policies impotent and ineffectual, making it all the easier to justify their total annihilation.

David Pettinicchio, PhD, is assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.