What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.

The ADA Anniversary is a time that we can reflect positively on a law that has made a great impact on the lives of people with disabilities and our country over the past 30 years. The message within the Preamble and history is powerful because it clearly states the Congressional intent that the law is intended “to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

History of the ADA

The ADA signified the adoption of a public policy committed to the removal of a broad range of impediments to the integration of people with disabilities into society. Historically, societies have frequently misconstrued, overreacted to, or ignored differences in individual mental and physical abilities. Recorded instances of ridicule, torture, imprisonment and execution of people with disabilities are not uncommon.

The period from 1920 to 1960 was marked by the development of welfare and entitlement programs as an alternative to total care institutions. The return of WWII and Korean War veterans led to an increase in the range of available rehabilitation services. Developments in medical technology increased the number of individuals surviving disease and accidents and significantly increased the ability of people with disabilities to be more physically mobile. A burgeoning of the rehabilitation profession began. More work and recreational programs were created, although most of the organizations sponsoring them were run by people without disabilities and the programs were usually sheltered and segregated.

Many of these organizations advocated for legislative and policy changes which led to the provision of some services for people with disabilities. The charity approach to disability, characterized by efforts to care for people with disabilities, was evidenced among those who wanted to “help the handicapped.” One observer has characterized this period as one of “an increasing humanization of certain classes of disabled people based on qualities of deservedness, normalcy and employability and a move from total societal indifference to a recognition that the remaining ‘unfortunates’ must receive some level of minimal care.”

Influenced by the goals, rhetoric and tactics of the civil rights movement, the modern disability rights movement has been marked by the increasing prominence of people with disabilities themselves as its leaders and spokespersons and the emergence of the first national cross-disability organization in the 1970’s. It rejects paternalistic treatment that impedes the realization of the full potential of people with disabilities.

In contrast to earlier conceptions of disability, the new paradigm rejects the “medical model” that disability is a deficiency or abnormality. It maintains that people with disabilities are competent and have the right to govern their lives, and holds that the proper goal of public policy is the creation of meaningful equal opportunity. Core to the movement is the elimination of attitudinal, communication, transportation, policy and physical barriers which will result in a substantial enhancement in the integration of people with disabilities into our society.

Purpose and Findings of the ADA

When President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law — the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities — in front of 3,000 people on the White House lawn on July 26, 1990, the event represented an historical benchmark and a milestone in America’s commitment to full and equal opportunity for all of its citizens.

The President’s emphatic directive on that day — “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down” — neatly encapsulated the simple yet long overdue message of the ADA: that millions of Americans with disabilities are full-fledged citizens and as such are entitled to legal protections that ensure them equal opportunity and access to the mainstream of American life.

Enactment of the ADA reflects deeply held American ideals that treasure the contributions that individuals can make when free from arbitrary, unjust, or outmoded societal attitudes and practices that prevent the realization of their potential. The ADA reflects a recognition that the surest path to America’s continued vitality, strength and vibrancy is through the full realization of the contributions of all of its citizens.

This data was gathered and distributed by the ADA National Network. To learn more about the impact the ADA has had on people with disabilities, please visit https://adata.org/ada-anniversary or https://www.adaanniversary.org/findings_purpose. Photo Credit: ADA National Network (adata.org).