American With Disabilites Act: 15 Years

Is President George Herbert Walker Bush lifted the pen after signing his name, the 41st president looked across the south lawn of the White House and saw thousands of men and women legally set free. When the ink dried on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for the first time people with disabilities were protected from discrimination on the job, on the street and even on the phone by an encompassing piece of legislation.

The ADA, signed into law on July 26, 1990, banned discrimination based on disability and provided civil rights for the now more than 50 million Americans who live with a disability. It guaranteed equal opportunities for people with disabilities in areas of employment, public accommodation, transportation, government services and telecommunications.

The act became the modern-day freedom flag for this group of dispossessed Americans. Instead of Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Harrison, the disability movement had leaders like Justin Dart, Evan Kemp, Patrisha Wright and Senator Tom Harkin pushing the cause. Instead of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers, this time Judith Heumann, Hugh Gallagher and Robert Burgdorf spoke out to make a difference. Tony Coelho, Fred Fay, Paul Longmore, Frank Bowe and Ed Roberts joined a long list of other advocates to help the ADA take its place among the nation’s landmark freedom documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As with its history-changing predecessors, promoting, lobbying, drafting and passing the ADA was, needless to say, a feat. But like all challenges, it brought a reward. Substantial progress toward independence and equality are celebrated now with its 15th anniversary.

Where We Came From

The 19th century saw few organizations with equality for people with disabilities as their focus, although the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817 was a crucial milestone acknowledging the importance of access to education and literacy. By 1880, the National Association for the Deaf was formed. Other organizations followed during the early 20th century as advocacy groups. Activists pushed for state workers’ compensation programs, and by 1919, forty-three states had established some form of workers’ compensation.

Following World War I, legislation such as the National Defense Act, the Smith-Hughes Act and the Soldier’s Rehabilitation Act authorized vocational services as the nation acknowledged in legislation its obligation to people injured in service of their country. In 1920, the Citizen’s Rehabilitation Act expanded some vocational guidance and placement services more broadly to all Americans with physical disabilities.

During World War II, the vast shortage of workers provided opportunity for people with disabilities to gain employment in vacant jobs. When the war ended, however, veterans and civilians with disabilities were by-passed as large numbers of soldiers and sailors became available again for civilian jobs. In response, President Truman created the President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week (today the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities). Nevertheless, government involvement in resolving disability discrimination remained limited.

The 1950s brought the Vocational Rehabilitation Amendments, which reshaped and expanded the collaboration between federal and state governments in helping people with disabilities obtain job training and find work. The U.S. Civil Service Commission directed federal departments and agencies to encourage and facilitate hiring people with disabilities.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act became the legislative benchmark for extinguishing discrimination. The Voting Rights Act was passed the following year. The model of these laws to end racial discrimination sowed the seeds for the disability rights activism that would propel the ADA two decades later.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 introduced the Fair Housing Act to end housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin and sex; however, disability discrimination was not addressed.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA) was drafted by author and political consultant Hugh Gallagher, often considered the grandfather of the disability movement. Contracting polio at the age of 19, Gallagher worked most of his life in government buildings that were inaccessible. He was exasperated at the indignity of being employed in the Senate and having to “pee in a cup.” The ABA required buildings constructed with federal funds to be accessible for people with disabilities. Its effectiveness was dampened, however, by its limited scope: it applied only to buildings constructed with federal monies that were designed, built, leased or altered after September 1969. Furthermore, implementation was hampered initially by the absence of a central federal agency to coordinate enforcement.

In 1970, Congress passed a rehabilitation bill prohibiting discrimination in federal programs and services, but President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, setting off an outrage across the nation. Disability rights protests included an 80-person sit-in that stopped traffic in New York City, prompting Congress three years later to override Nixon’s veto and pass the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act created the Access Board (originally the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) to address some of the problems seen in implementing the Architectural Barriers Act. Composed of the heads of 12 federal agencies and 13 public members appointed by the president, the board was charged with implementing the ABA and ensuring development of federal design standards for accessibility. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability by institutions, employers or organizations receiving financial assistance from any federal department or agency. The Rehabilitation Act was the first marriage between federal law and disability anti-discrimination measures. Although it wasn’t all-encompassing, it did draw attention to the cause.

On the coattails of the Rehabilitation Act, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) was passed in 1975, mandating that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education. Prior to the EAHCA, which has been renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), many children with disabilities were denied access to public education for various and often unsupported reasons.

One of those children was Judith Heumann, who had contracted polio and was denied her right to attend public school until fourth grade because her wheelchair was deemed a fire hazard. She went on, despite a legal struggle, to teach in the New York City public school system, and later to become Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Department of Education. She was the driving force behind several pieces of legislation, including the IDEA, from which more than six million students with disabilities benefit, and she later helped author the ADA.
In 1977, national focus shifted back to the Rehabilitation Act. Joseph Califano, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, refused to sign regulations to implement Section 504. People with disabilities held protests in 10 American cities. In San Francisco, more than 150 people refused to leave the Health, Education and Welfare office building; they stayed for nearly a month, setting the record for the longest sit-in of a federal building in U.S. history. Califano gave in and accepted the regulations.

A year later, demonstrations continued as disability rights leader Wade Blank and the American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) lobbied for public transportation accessibility. ADAPT, which eventually became the American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, has used civil disobedience and similar non-violent direct action tactics to promote equal treatment for people with disabilities.

The National Council on Disability was established in 1978 as an advisory board within the Department of Education. It is the only federal agency responsible for analyzing and recommending improvements on laws and issues facing people with disabilities. In 1986, the council, headed by Lex Frieden, issued a report entitled Toward Independence to the president and Congress. The assessment of laws and programs included the recommendation for a comprehensive law requiring equal opportunity for people with disabilities.

“In 1986, this was a general idea,” says Frank Bowe, professor at Hofstra University, who was heavily involved with generating the initial legwork of the ADA. The idea, however, turned into far more.

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Other articles in the Jane Pauley issue include Letter From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Whats up Doc?; Headlines: MS Cruise, Breast Cancer & Court Ruling; Michael Rogers-A Journey of Self-Discovery; Butterfly Power: Native American Healing; Bipolar Disorder: Standup Comed Showcase: Sixth Annual Event; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe!

More excerpts from the Jane Pauley issue:
Jane Pauley: Interview by Chet Cooper and Dr. Gillian Friedman

Coming of Age: Statewide Independent Living Councils

Harriet McBryde Johnson: Civil Rights Activist

Senator Harkin: Setting Our People Free

Employment: Building Healthy Relationships

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