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
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
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
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
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.
continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe
ADA Buisness Connection
Righting the ADA
National Council on Disability
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...