The Americans with Disabilities Act in Context: Looking Backward and Forward

By Elizabeth L. Sammons, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities Program Administrator and VisionAware Peer Advisor

Three disability symbols representing the Americans with Disabilities Act

Making Way for the ADA

Many Americans today consider July 26, 1990, to be the birth date of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a landmark date, this holds true, but many events occurred far before the ADA, winds of change which swept the way for 1990. As a resident of Ohio, let me brag about my state because Ohio can boast a rich role in the ADA experience. For example, in 1837, Ohio’s legislature became the first in America to authorize funding for the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Blind. This and the School for the Deaf (1832) stand among the first public schools for these students in our country. In 1900, Ohio also became the first state to provide aid to local schools for the education of children with severe disabilities.

Later that decade, the Commission for the Blind (the forerunner of BSVI), established its first industrial training schools and workshops. This last event is especially revolutionary. Until then, disability was generally viewed as a thing to be cured, pitied, or hidden, and society took either a medical fix-it approach or a charitable do-it-for-them stance. Encouraging those who could to integrate and find a vocation was controversial and new. Until the 20th century, society had seldom questioned physical and social factors enshrouding all aspects of life with a disability. Just six weeks after President Woodrow Wilson’s 1920 lead, Ohio’s Governor Harry L. Davis’ proclamation made official Ohio's vocational rehabilitation partnership with the federal government. By 1935, Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR) offices were open in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Canton.

Whenever faced with an influx of wounded war veterans, American society asks itself how to accommodate their needs, and the World War II era was no exception. By 1946, the first meeting of the "President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week" was held in Washington, D.C. Its campaigns emphasized the competence of people with disabilities and used movie trailers, billboards, and radio ads to convince the public that it's "good business to hire the handicapped." Two years later, a forerunner to the Ohio Governor’s Council on People with Disabilities was established, initially promoting the needs of wounded veterans.

Along with huge steps in the job rehabilitation field, the disability community began to show itself more publicly, including having fun. We see this in the 1949 establishment of a wheelchair basketball team and the 1960 pioneering of the Paralympic Games in Rome. Federal funding for the National Theater of the Deaf came a few years later.

The 1960s and 1970s

During the 1960s, professional building standards allowing for greater access were discussed and implemented by degrees. This decade of civil rights also witnessed the shift toward deinstitutionalization and thus, towards greater social integration of those who a few decades earlier could have been sterilized or even banned by "ugly laws" from appearing in public (which by the way were on the books in Columbus, Ohio, until 1973.) Medicare and Medicaid were established and these, along with greater financial support, allowed greater independence for many Americans. By this point, a powerful idea of a disability civil rights minority movement existed that had recently emerged from the struggles of African Americans and women.

In 1970, Congress declared the need for accessible public transportation, and 1975 marked the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, better known today by its amended name, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This set of laws guaranteed children with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" in an inclusive setting (that is, placement with nondisabled peers).

In 1974, I had my own "Independence Walk" at the age of eight, as chronicled in my award-winning post about walking to my bus stop using my mobility cane.

Rehabilitation Act

Pioneer legislation paving the way towards the ADA came in 1973 when the Rehabilitation Act was passed encouraging the federal government and its contractors to hire people with disabilities. This was also the first legislation to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. However, enforcement applied only to programs and employment through federal agencies, to those receiving federal funds such as colleges, and to business employment practices for those with federal contracts. In my own state, The Ohio State University stands among a scattered few colleges to establish a disability services office prior to the Act being signed.

Partly resulting from delayed enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities emerged as the leading national cross-disability rights organization of the 1970s, pulling together disability rights groups representing blind, deaf, physically disabled, and developmentally disabled communities. Activists came to understand that the disability community has numerous needs in common and working together would be the only way to see rights on paper turned into reality.

Action came into full swing on April 5, 1976, with a four-week sit-in by hundreds launched at San Francisco’s Health Education and Welfare Office. People of all disabilities demanded the signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which would bring life to reforms in education, transportation, and jobs that were languishing on paper. With the community rallying around, this sit-in led to the signing, ending the longest occupation of a federal building in US history. Following these events, a White House Conference brought together 3,000 people with disabilities to discuss federal policy.

Paving the Way in the 1980s and ADA Summary

The 1960s and 1970s brought about far greater awareness of the disability community as a political movement and force to be reckoned with. Under the new civil rights model, disability no longer signified an individual's medical infirmity, but rather, it began to challenge an entire social and cultural construct.

By the 1980s, social acceptance and integration of people with disabilities began to spread around the world, and 1981 became the United Nations’ International Year of Disabled Persons, which ultimately lead to a decade-long event. That same year, the World Institute on Disability was born. The National Organization on Disability came about through private sector efforts to integrate the disability community into work, religion, paid student internships, voting, accessible communities, and much more. Additionally, the National Council on the Handicapped issued an urgent call for Congress to "act forthwith to include persons with disabilities in the Civil Rights Act of 1968."

The 1980s also witnessed far more mainstreaming of people with disabilities. Efforts to make voting places accessible began just six years before the signing of the ADA, though it took two more years to prohibit airlines from charging additional fees and putting restrictions on passengers with disabilities and not until 1988 did the Fair Housing Act extend to include people with disabilities.

Summary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Now, let’s talk about the actual ADA. On July 26, 1990, in the presence of about 3,000 witnesses at the White House, the ADA became the world's first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities calling for the removal of all barriers that deny individuals with disabilities equal opportunities in all aspects of life. In a nutshell, the Act has five sections called "Titles" and four major goals—equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

  • Title I prohibits discrimination in the workplace, affecting work places with 15 employees or more. Employers must make "reasonable accommodations," both physical and logistical, that allow people to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Work activities discussed range from initial interviews to socialization and including just about everything in between.
  • Title II requires all public services, including transportation, to make reasonable modifications in order for services, programs, and activities to be accessible. This includes making print matter accessible to people with reading impairments as well as designating an ADA coordinator for entities of 50 employees or more.
  • Title III covers public accommodations and services operated by private entities (including businesses, educational establishments, and nonprofit service providers) regardless of size. This addresses access, such as construction and informational barriers, as well as transportation. Exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment are prohibited.
  • Title IV focuses on communications, most particularly telephone services and TV captioning for the Deaf community. With much of today’s technology only emerging at that time, the Title is behind in some sectors but, for its day, it attempted to be as comprehensive as possible.
  • Title V contains ADA accessibility guidelines as developed by the US Access Board. It also clarifies that all provisions of the ADA cover both states and Congress. Additionally, it protects people from retaliation for pursuing rights denoted in other sections of the ADA.

Read more about the American's with Disabilities Act.

Effects of the ADA

In contrast to the Rehabilitation Act a generation earlier, the ADA’s ink had hardly dried in 1990 before visible ramifications began to take shape. The number of college students disclosing disabilities swelled from about six percent to 11 percent, because now, some form of accommodations were guaranteed. New construction projects had to include wheelchair access, and there were cases where entire projects had to be redesigned for lack of planning. Service animals drew greater acceptance than ever before, while curb cuts became the rule rather than the exception.

Accessible Construction

Thanks to accessible construction, the presence of people with mobility impairments have become increasingly visible from sports arenas to restaurants to the YMCA. Closed-captioning markings on standard television sets, increases in accessible web design, and braille on signage are making history by creating awareness and public acceptance to the unique ways people with communications challenges approach their world. Public transit systems are more usable now, especially to wheelchair users. The percentage of Americans with disabilities voting rose from 31 percent in 1996 to an estimated 52 percent in 2004, following the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided states with federal funds for updating their voting process.

Court Rulings and Reactions Along the Way

Reflective of these winds of change, 1999 brought the Olmstead court case, interpreting the ADA Title II prohibition against discrimination to include a ban on undue segregation in institutions. "Unjustified isolation... is properly regarded as discrimination." The case highlights federal regulations requiring the government to provide services and supports in the most integrated setting appropriate to the person's needs. Ohio has become a national leader in implementing Olmstead decisions with thousands of people leaving nursing homes and other institutions to live in the community over the last decade.

Nonetheless, the 90s and early 21st century have witnessed several court cases in which unanticipated rulings were made adverse to the disability community. In a nutshell, courts tended to focus more closely on whether a person was legally covered under the ADA than whether actual discrimination had occurred and the great majority of cases came down in favor of employers. As one example, in a Texas case, a federal judge said a worker with epilepsy was not disabled and thus not covered under ADA provisions because he was taking medications that reduced his seizures.

As a result, in 2008, major ADA amendments with bipartisan support were signed into law, shifting definitions to broader coverage and therefore, to wider protection under the ADA. Today the concept of disability has been expanded regardless of whether there is a way to mitigate the disability. A non-exhaustive list of impairments and major life activities is now available to clarify regulations that were previously vague.

Looking to Future of the ADA

No legislation is perfect, even as no society is perfect, and challenges will continue as regards to the ADA. But thanks to the ADA, America now has a strong backdrop against which to make solid decisions on these and many other issues that may not even yet exist.

Specifically, today’s budget cuts and the variety of settings where people with disabilities prefer to live, keep public transportation out of reach to many who would like to use it. Additionally, adaptive technology is always a step or two… or three… behind current technology, making information access an ongoing conundrum. But even enhanced with current technology, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has changed little over the past generation, leaving ample room for shifts in attitude in this critical sphere. In fact, many disability advocates list economic self-sufficiency as the goal having the least success. This may be partly based on the Social Security definition of disability as an inability to perform substantial work. Perhaps it is time to challenge this concept.

Read More About the Effects of the ADA and Current Challenges

Information for Ohioans with Disabilities Seeking Employment

24 Years of the ADA

Crosswalks to Civil Rights

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