Americans With Disabilities Act — 15 Years

Circa 2005

As 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.

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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 bypassed 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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Robert Burgdorf, a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia, helped Senator Tom Harkin compose the original draft of the comprehensive Americans with Disabilities Act. Harkin, a long champion of disability rights, grew up with a brother who is deaf and was tired of seeing opportunities unnecessarily limited for people with disabilities. Harkin and other legislators introduced the ADA to Congress in 1988. But a simple introduction was not enough, and national organizations such as the Task Force on Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities danced across the country to build support in every state.

Former Congressman Tony Coelho, who has talked publicly about his epilepsy, was another author of the law, using his expertise in the area of employment. Washington lobbyists Liz Savage and Paul Marchand, attorneys Arlene Mayerson and Chai Feldblum and supporter Marilyn Golden also assisted in creating and lobbying for the act.

Patrisha Wright, nicknamed the General because of her ruthless campaign to pass the ADA, was valuable in rewriting the comprehensive law. Along with activist Justin Dart, she led the movement of diaries of discrimination, where people with disabilities documented cases when they were denied accessibility or treated unequally. Congress, after being presented with this evidence, concluded that discrimination against people with disabilities was, in fact, present.

As the first comprehensive law banning discrimination on the basis of disability, the ADA passed through Congress in July 1990 with bipartisan support. The largest presidential signing ceremony in history took place July 26, 1990, when more than 3,000 disability rights advocates came to the nation’s capital to witness President Bush’s signature.

Seated to the president’s left was Justin Dart.

Dart is considered the one of the founding fathers of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1948, he contracted polio and was given three days to live. Thirty-two years later, he was on stage with President Bush.

In the 1960s, Dart and his wife Yoshiko began working for disability rights while living in Japan. Dart launched Japan Tupperware, instituting then-radical corporate policies of promoting women executives and employing formerly institutionalized people with paraplegia. The couple moved to Texas in 1974 and devoted their time and money to the disability rights movement. Prior to his death in 2002, Dart received five presidential appointments to help direct the government’s efforts in addressing disability issues.

In 1988, Dart was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Upon presentation, Dart removed the medal and gave it to Yoshiko. Saying the award belonged to all who battled for disability rights, he made duplicates of the medal and sent them to hundreds of fellow advocates in the movement.

Dart led the group that drafted the ADA, and the first pen President Bush used to sign the act was given to Dart. “Justin was very goal-oriented, very broad-minded,” Bowe recalls. “He kept that visionary point of view through the whole process.”

Seated to the president’s right was Evan Kemp. Kemp was also one of the principle creators of the ADA. As a child, he was diagnosed with Kugelburg Welander syndrome, a degenerative form of muscular atrophy. He wasn’t expected to live past 14.

Kemp worked as an attorney in Washington during the 1970s before establishing Invacare in 1979, a company that eventually became the world’s leading manufacturer of wheelchairs. The following year, Kemp became head of the Washington-based Disability Rights Center. He became a commissioner with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1987 and was appointed EEOC chairman in 1990 by President Bush, with the opportunity to oversee enforcement of the ADA. The first person with a disability to head a federal agency, he was a key link between President Bush and the disability community and later wrote the president’s speeches for disability related topics. Prior to his death in 1997, Kemp founded Evan Kemp and Associates, a business providing products and services to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.

Off-stage were people like Ed Roberts, who started the Rolling Quads student group at the University of California-Berkeley to fight accessibility issues. Roberts started America’s first independent living center at Berkeley in 1972. Heumann, after her days as a New York schoolteacher, was eventually named director of the center. Their work led to the creation of more than 400 independent living centers across the country. Both Heumann and Roberts, along with Joan Leon, founded the World Institute on Disability in 1983.

The credits would also read the names of Fred Fay, a community organizer who helped Dart and Becky Ogle found Justice For All, a national advocacy group and email network formed to defend and advance disability rights; Paul Longmore, director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University and widely published scholar in disability rights; and Bowe, special education coordinator at Hofstra University and former director of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. Says Fay of the disability community’s collective action, “There are literally hundreds of people who contributed to the lobbying effort. It was far and away the most intense lobbying from the disability rights community in history. In every single state people lobbied their own senators and representatives.”

Broken into five titles and incorporating a three-fold definition of disability, the ADA became the world’s first comprehensive protection of civil rights for people with disabilities. “With today’s signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through onceclosed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom,” President Bush said at the signing.

Disability has a three-pronged definition, according to the ADA. The act states a person has a disability if he or she (a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (b) has a record of such impairment, or (c) is regarded as having such impairment.

Title I focuses on employment discrimination, prohibiting private, government and public employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Title II is broken into two subtitles: Subtitle A concerns public services at the state and local level, and Subtitle B deals with entities that provide transportation. Title III, which addresses public accommodations, requires elimination of physical, communications and procedural barriers for establishments such as retail businesses, educational institutions, recreational facilities and social service centers. Title IV of the act requires telephone communication services to be accessible to individuals who have impaired hearing or speech. Title V contains provisions applying to all titles of the ADA, such as the requirement for federal agencies to develop technical assistance plans and the encouragement of alternative dispute resolution.

“The ADA was big because of a very simple idea—it removed disability rights from its prior connection to federal funds,” Bowe says. “What the ADA did was say this is a human and civil right. That was huge. Look at Title III and how it has changed hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and sports facilities, none of which benefit from any federal financial assistance nor from any federal contracts.”

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Despite the monumental passing of the ADA, many hurdles remain.

A persisting problem, according to advocates, is that the courts have whittled away the number of people protected by the law. They charge that the ADA’s three-pronged definition of a person with a disability has been applied increasingly more restrictively, reducing the intended scope of protection.

Businesses have been nervous about interpretation as well, with confusion remaining about what the ADA requires.

No, businesses do not have to spend thousands of dollars to retool their existing facilities if they’re not ADA compliant. The law requires businesses to make accommodations only if readily achievable, a determination based in part on difficulty and expense.

No, elevators, escalators and ramps do not have to be installed in every building. When full accessibility is not readily achievable, a business can instead offer to bring its services to the customer, such as through street delivery or by having an employee fetch requested items.

No, businesses do not have to hire unqualified people just to comply with discrimination laws. Unqualified job applicants, with or without disabilities, are not protected by the ADA.

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The National Council on Disability is finding out. The organization recently held five forums around the nation to investigate whether disability accommodations are appropriate. In addition to the forums, the council has conducted focus groups, individual interviews and surveys throughout the country. The results and recommendations will be presented to President George W. Bush and Congress to commemorate the ADA’s anniversary and demonstrate what remains on the agenda after 15 years. “Today, individuals with disabilities are better able to develop meaningful skills, engage in productive work and participate fully in society,” President Bush said at last year’s celebration of the ADA. “Yet our work is not finished.”

The president announced a New Freedom Initiative in 2001 with the goal of integrating people with disabilities in all aspects of life. Three areas—universal technology, education and employment—are at the core of the initiative. The president promised that all federal government electronic and information technologies will become accessible and that children will receive appropriate educational opportunities and be supported in the transition from school to work.

The U.S. Department of Justice has established two specific programs to facilitate ADA implementation. The first, Project Civic Access, is a wide-ranging effort to review the ADA compliance of select counties, cities, towns and villages across the country, eliminating physical and communication barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in community life. The second, ADA Business Connection, is an informational program to assist companies and consumers in understanding the ADA, with the goal of increasing ADA compliance and incorporating people with disabilities into American business. Through the user-friendly ADA Business Connection website, companies can learn the financial benefits of making their premises accessible, review specific ADA requirements, read about common mistakes, find specific examples of ways to ensure accessibility in common situations, and get contact information for an ADA specialist to assist with remaining questions.

The challenge now turns to the aging baby boomer generation, says Bowe. “As boomers go into their 60s, statistically they are very likely to sustain disabilities,” he says. “Thus, disability rights and accessibility becomes the next boomer issue. It will be very powerful, simply because there are more than 60 million boomers.”

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The work continues. President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990, and President George W. Bush now helps celebrate 15 years of greater equality and independence for people with disabilities.

“We are keeping faith with the spirit of our…forefathers who wrote…‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,’” George H.W. Bush said at the act’s signing ceremony in 1990.

Equal and independent. Those two words have changed history. They were penned into the text of the Declaration of Independence, the single document that created America and represented all for which its citizens stood and fought. They are spoken in every middle school history classroom. The terms equal and independent motivated endurance through the Civil War, a treacherous period of hate and inequality. They’ve now lived through lifetimes of fighting for equal access for people with disabilities.

After 15 years, the torch must still burn. There are still barriers to knock down. There ‘are still doors that aren’t open. So, in the words of Justin Dart, as a nation paying respect to a collective right, we must lead on.

by Josh Pate

ADA Business Connection

Righting the ADA National Council on Disability

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