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31 Years Later, 31 Things About The Americans With Disabilities Act

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at July 31, 2021

It’s getting harder every July to write something new or insightful about the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s difficult even for those of us who have disabilities, and have lived long enough to experience the entire history of the law.

So instead of trying to change perspective on the ADA, or pass some sort of comprehensive verdict on it, here is one disabled American’s brainstorm on “our” civil rights law. Some of these “things” about the Americans with Disabilities Act are objective facts; some are definitely subjective impressions. As always with such things, your mileage may very much vary:

1. It’s hard to recognize all of the activists, policy experts, and lawmakers who were responsible for drafting and passing the ADA. But the Administration for Community Living has a three part history of the ADA, from its early origins to final passage. They mention most of the major leaders and advocates:

2. In one of the final pushes to pass the ADA, over 100 disabled activists crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It was a dramatic demonstration of both their determination and the nature of inaccessibility itself. It has come to be known as the “Capitol Crawl.”

3. The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 with a degree of bipartisan support that would be nearly unthinkable in today’s politically polarized climate:

  • House vote in favor – 248 Democrats, 155 Republicans, 9 not voting. 
  • Senate vote in favor – 44 Democrats, 32 Republicans, 16 not voting.

4. A Republican President willingly, and with real pride, signed a sweeping expansion of civil rights and mandates on private, non-government entities.

5. Title I of the ADA deals with Employment. It made denying job opportunities to disabled people because of their disabilities illegal, and mandated “reasonable accommodations” to make individual disabled people’s jobs and workplaces accessible.

6. Title II of the ADA deals with State and Local Government. It applied most of the same accessibility and equal service principles to local governments that had been in effect for the Federal government for at least a decade under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. States, counties, and municipalities were also required to develop detailed plans for ADA compliance, including timetables. It also required public transportation to be fully accessible on a timetable, and provide paratransit for disabled people unable to use regular transit routes.

7. Title III of the ADA deals with Public Accommodations –– that is, businesses and other private facilities open to the public. It applied accessibility standards to most businesses and prohibited denying equal service to disabled customers.

8. Title IV of the ADA deals with Telecommunication. It required implementation of close captioning and TTY services nationwide.

9. The ADA includes comprehensive, detailed, periodically updated, and freely available accessibility standards for nearly every type of building and facility.

10. The ADA also for the first time required private businesses and employers to individually accommodate people with disabilities and their unique assistance needs in order to provide equal service.

11. The ADA’s accessibility requirements aren’t the same for every location. They were divided into three groups:

  • Buildings built after 1992 must be fully accessible.
  • Portions of buildings substantially renovated or added to after 1992 must be fully accessible.
  • Buildings built before 1992 and not substantially renovated must be made accessible to the extent it is “readily achievable.”

12. Of course, after 31 years, far fewer buildings meant for public and business use can really be exempt from ADA accessibility requirements. There are far more buildings constructed or renovated since 1992, and existing structures have had plenty of time to make “readily achievable” accessibility modifications.

13. The ADA does not cover religious institutions, except where they are employers. At least some churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions have nevertheless made at least some effort to use ADA accessibility and accommodation guidance to improve equal service for their disabled members

14. The ADA does not cover housing, because housing discrimination and accessibility was already covered by existing housing laws –– though perhaps not as well covered as it should have been.

15. Different parts of the ADA came into effect at different times –– from basic non-discrimination within a year or two, to train station accessibility over ten years into the future.

16. Most activity and resources after the law was signed were put into “educating” people and businesses about the ADA, essentially persuading them to comply.

17. Early implementation of the ADA included a volunteer corps of disabled people trained in Washington, DC to train others in their home states, cities, and neighborhoods.

18. The ADA began to be weakened in the late 1990s, by several Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of who is disabled and therefore who is covered by the ADA.

19. The ADA was amended in 2008 to help strengthen the original principle of a broad, inclusive definition of disability and who is covered by the law.

20. The Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision actually extended the ADA’s reach and significance by tying the issue of disability care inside or outside institutions to the ADA’s mandate for equal service in integrated settings. It provided the first really strong federal backing for disabled people who wanted to leave nursing homes and other institutions and receive personal assistance services in their own homes instead.

21. When the law first passed, some businesses frankly made the decision to do nothing and wait to be sued. Larger, better resourced businesses invested in ADA compliance, but often even more heavily in legal defenses and avoidance tactics.

22. Businesses that are hassled or sued for ADA violations tend to see ADA lawsuits as frivolous, and as surprises out of nowhere, even though the ADA is 31 years old and information on compliance is freely available.

23. Relatively weak, fragmented, and functionally voluntary enforcement of accessibility standards have probably contributed a lot to whatever “waves” of lawsuits have actually happened. With government enforcement rare and slow, and businesses indifferent or resistant to customer advocacy, lawsuits can often seem like the only effective option.

24. Many disabled people today find it hard to get excited about the ADA because it so rarely seems to directly make their lives better, or correct any of the ableism and inaccessibility they encounter.

25. Disabled people today see a law that’s over three decades old, with barely any official enforcement, that’s treated as a suggestion by some, and as a weird and unfamiliar mandate by others.

26. The disability community probably pinned too many of its hopes on the ADA, and lays too many of the community’s disappointments on the law’s perceived failures.

27. People who are involved in disability culture and activism sometimes talk about an “ADA generation” –– people with disabilities who came of age after passage of the ADA in 1990. It’s a generation of disabled Americans which is thought to share some broadly distinctive ideas about disability, and has different expectations than disabled people from before the ADA.

28. The ADA helped spur a major recalibration of what disabled people could and should expect in terms of everyday accessibility, accommodation, and their own self-advocacy responsibilities.

29. The ADA turned what would once have been seen as demanding and idealistic hopes into standard and justified expectations.

30. Public built environments were gradually but steadily expected to be broadly accessible, while disabled people got used to asking without shame for specific accommodations, and to clearly identifying instead of hiding their disabilities.

31. 31 years later, we may be in the middle of another recalibration, in which disabled people expect more than the bare minimums outlined in the ADA. They also increasingly question how much disabled people should be required to reveal of themselves and negotiate to obtain the access and accommodations they are supposed to have, both by law and common fairness.

Maybe the ADA’s true value is as a catalyst. In 1990 it changed how disabled Americans saw themselves. Both the law’s strengths and weaknesses continue to drive the disability community’s evolution today.


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