Story at a glance

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, ensuring civil rights for people with disabilities.
  • The act covers employment, government services, public accommodations, telecommunications and transportation.
  • Themes for celebrating the 30th anniversary in 2020 include voting access and global travel.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. Since then, public places have become more accessible to people using wheelchairs. The law also bans discrimination in other areas of life like employment and education.

Road to getting the ADA passed

Similar, preceding laws include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1974, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. These laws increased access to vocational training, housing, access to public buildings and education.

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In 1986, the National Council on Disability (NCD) published a report titled “Toward Independence,” which outlined federal programs that could benefit from new legislation for people with disabilities. One of the goals is to “promote the full integration of such individuals in the community, in schools, and in the workplace, and contribute to the independence and dignity of such individuals.”

In 1988, the NCD published an update on progress, including that 80 percent of the recommendations from the 1986 report were either partially or fully accomplished. There still remained big gaps in civil rights for people with disabilities, which is where the ADA comes in.

What the Act says

The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990 and bans discrimination on the basis of disability in all areas of public life. The regulations issued as a result covered four main areas: Title I Employment, Title II State and Local Government, Title III Public Accommodations and Title IV Telecommunications. These titles came into effect over the first few years of the 1990s.

The act aims to ensure that people with disabilities have equal employment opportunities, are not discriminated against when seeking government services, get access to public and commercial facilities like hotels and restaurants, can communicate through nationwide telecommunications services if they have speech or hearing disabilities and are not discriminated against when seeking other miscellaneous services.

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What has happened since then

There have been 20 Supreme Court rulings related to the ADA, four of which narrowed the definition of disability. One of the rulings stated that institutional isolation of people with disabilities was also a form of discrimination.

The ADA Amendm\ents Act was signed in 2008 to “counteract the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of disability and provide broad protection from discrimination.” It included language that states learning, reading, thinking and concentrating fall under life activities and mandates that schools provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities who meet the requirements but may not qualify for services.

Transportation regulations were added and updated since the 90s. New regulations closed some of the gaps, including the most recent 2015 amendment that states that transportation entities need to make reasonable modifications or accommodations to ensure that people with disabilities have access. For example, if a person in a wheelchair wants to board a bus but they can’t from the sidewalk or construction blocks them, the bus driver should adjust the boarding location to accommodate them.

What more needs to be done

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Although access overall has gotten better for people with disabilities, the employment rate is low. The national employment rate for people with disabilities hovers around 36 or 37 percent. Compare that to the employment rate of people without disabilities in 2018 at 77.2 percent.

More businesses are starting to conduct inclusion training, and more are creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities. But it may take some time before it becomes commonplace. That’s why some advocacy groups are focusing on creating infrastructure and opportunities to support and integrate people with disabilities into the workforce.

In addition, “invisible” disabilities, like chronic illnesses, still encounter discrimination and judgement in public spheres. We still have work to do in terms of awareness and inclusion on this front.

Where to get more information

The ADA anniversary website has more information and links to the ADA 2020 survey where you can share your story of how the ADA has affected your life. The official anniversary is July 26, 2020, but you can celebrate the ADA all year long. There are monthly themes, such as transportation and telecommunications access for January, voting access for February and global travel for April.

The US Department of Labor lists in detail the different agencies that enforce parts of the ADA. The ADA website and the National Council on Disability have information and the latest announcements about the ADA. For more information about the Supreme Court rulings, check this report from the NCD.

Published on Jan 20, 2020