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The ADA Turns 30: A Reflection

Low Section of Business Men and Women, Man Sitting in a Wheelchair
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

When the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the New York Times hailed it as "the most sweeping anti-discrimination measure since the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

The law banned discrimination against millions of people who were born with disabilities and also provided protections to people with temporary disabilities or recovering from alcohol abuse or illness.

Has it fulfilled its promise? As the ADA observes its 30th anniversary in 2020, it's worth our while to look back at its history and the impact it has had on people's lives.

The Law Prior to the ADA

Before the ADA, there was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law's Section 504 required that federal buildings be physically accessible for people with disabilities. The problem, though, was money. The cost of retrofitting federal buildings was enormous and by 1977 the law was yet to be implemented.

The lack of action galvanized disability activists into forming a broad movement demanding action and on April 28 of that year, the regulation finally became implemented. Although Section 504 dealt only with federal buildings, it laid the groundwork for the ADA's extension of protections to workplaces and all private institutions 13 years later.

Today, the ADA's influence is everywhere: Motorized lifts for buses, building ramps, designated parking spaces. Many people take it for granted.

While these advances have improved the lives of the country's estimated 61 million people with disabilities by providing expanded physical access, they still face many other problems.

Problems Persist

"Thirty years after the ADA's passage, violations abound," Time reported on July 23. "Disability-related complaints remain the largest category filed with the federal agencies that enforce fair housing and employment laws, and many businesses and institutions remain inaccessible."

Americans with disabilities still face greater obstacles in finding jobs; children with disabilities are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college.

But there are reasons for people with disabilities to feel more optimistic, Huff Post reported on July 23.

"Indeed, disability rights have seen an unprecedented level of visibility on the political stage during the 2020 election," Huff Post reported.

In May, Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden released "A Plan for Full Participation and Equality for People With Disabilities," pledging to "aggressively enforce the civil rights of people with disabilities."

On the July 26 anniversary date, Biden has pledged to announce the creation of a coalition of campaign advisors with disabilities.

Disability advocates say much remains to be accomplished, including a stronger fight to counter efforts by some to use the ADA in ways it wasn't intended for. Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and Valerie Novack, a fellow in that office, co-authored an article on July 23 arguing that in some instances the ADA is being used as an excuse to suppress voting and harass homeless people.

Cokley and Novack call for stricter enforcement of the law. "(T)he ADA should be treated as the 30-year-old anti-discrimination bill that it is," they wrote, "with the expectation that all ADA-covered entities are in compliance with the law and that efforts to overturn those rights be viewed as what they are: attacks on people with disabilities."

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