July 26, 2020 marks thirty years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These days, the ADA is considered by many to be a singular achievement in disability rights. Certainly, its importance in ensuring accessibility for all Americans is indisputable. But the fact is, the ADA didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it was the end result of decades of hard work by activists with disabilities and their allies.
In the United States, injured war veterans were among the first people to gain legal protections, and they set a precedent that later expanded to other groups of people with disabilities. For example, the Civilian Rehabilitation Act of 1920, which supplemented state funding of vocational services for Americans with disabilities, was modeled on the Soldiers Rehabilitation Act.
A New Era of Inclusivity Activism
The modern era of inclusivity activism began in the latter half of the 20th century, when a critical mass of people with disabilities began to challenge their second-class status in society. Up until then, society’s attitude towards those with disabilities was one of “out of sight, out of mind.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, children with disabilities were often removed from their families and sent to institutions where they spent the rest of their lives.
But in the 1960s, people with disabilities began to challenge society’s expectation that they remain hidden, and instead made themselves visible by demanding the right to participate fully in their communities. They staged sit-ins at federal and commercial buildings, blocked inaccessible buses, and marched through the streets with their allies to demand justice.
It took a few years, but eventually, the hard work began to pay off. One of the first achievements of the movement was the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of that act specifically banned discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal funds.
Section 504 was significant not just for the rights it guaranteed people with disabilities, but also because its enactment signaled a shift in how the larger society viewed this group. For centuries, it was assumed that people with disabilities lacked employment and education because of their disabilities. Section 504 recognized that it was, in fact, systemic discrimination that kept these individuals out of the workplace.
Section 504: A New Beginning
Section 504 was a breakthrough, but it was only a beginning. Activists realized that this policy would only be as effective as the regulations that came out of it, and so they carefully monitored the government’s next steps.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) was in charge of creating the Section 504 regulations that would govern all federal agencies. Unfortunately, HEW did not prioritize these regulations, and some activists felt that the agency’s initial proposals were inadequate. Removing policy barriers was a good first step, but one that by itself would not significantly improve accessibility. It was important that the new regulations require positive action; architectural and communication barriers had to be removed to truly welcome individuals with disabilities into the wider society.
Recognizing this, people with disabilities set to work once again. They continued to write letters and organize protests, keeping the issue of disability rights in the public eye. Because of these efforts, a federal lawsuit was filed to force the HEW to implement Section 504 and issue appropriate regulations. In July 1976, a judge ruled in favor of individuals with disabilities, and stated that the regulations had to be issued “with no further unreasonable delays.” But even this was not enough to prompt action on the part of HEW.
Activists did not give up. Instead, they organized. For four years, they led sit-ins at HEW buildings all over the country. The letter-writing campaigns and direct lobbying also continued.
Also important was support from other interest groups. In San Francisco, a broad coalition of organizations, including the mayor’s office and even some of the HEW’s own staff, worked together to support the activists who had occupied the HEW offices. These groups provided the activists with food, mattresses, portable showers, and even phone lines, enabling them to continue their sit-in for 25 days.
The 504 Sit-ins didn’t end until their goal was achieved. On April 28, 1977, the head of HEW finally signed the regulations, effectively implementing Section 504. It is these regulations that form the basis of the ADA.
People with disabilities had won a significant victory. As Kitty Cone, one of the organizers of the 504 Sit-ins said, “We showed strength and power and courage and commitment, that we the shut-ins or the shut-outs, that we the hidden, supposedly the frail and the weak, that we could wage a struggle at the highest level of government and win.”
The years of activism by people with disabilities compelled the head of HEW to sign the regulations for another important piece of legislation, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. These new regulations helped break down the barriers that had kept children with disabilities isolated from their non-disabled peers, and began the process of welcoming these children into mainstream public schools, finally granting them access to equal schooling.
Toward Independence and the Signing of the ADA
In 1986, the National Council on the Handicapped (now National Council on Disability, or NCD) issued its report Toward Independence, in which it recommended the enactment of a comprehensive equal opportunity law, which the report proposed calling “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1986.” The ADA was first put to a vote in the 100th Congress of 1988, and was passed with wide margins of support in 1990. It was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26 of that year.
The ADA did not end all discrimination with its passage, or ensure full accommodation for people with disabilities. But it did provide a useful framework upon which to build, and activists have made good use of this important legislative tool since its enactment.
Like the 1973 Act that came before it, the ADA is only as useful as the regulations it engenders. But unlike the previous legislation, regulations came more quickly this time. The early nineties saw the promulgation of regulations pertaining to employment, accessible telecommunications, and public accommodations. These regulations took effect over the next several years, so that by the end of the millennium, they were making a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Around the turn of the century, a series of Supreme Court rulings narrowed the scope of the ADA. Again, activists set to work, and in 2008, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The ADAAA was specifically drafted to counteract the Supreme Court’s rulings and broaden the ADA to reflect its original intent.
In many ways, the Americans with Disabilities Act is just one step in what has been a long struggle for recognition of shared humanity. We celebrate the ADA not just because it is a landmark piece of legislation, but because it symbolizes this struggle, and the great strides that are possible when people unite for what is just. As the poet Bob Williams said, when commemorating the 25th anniversary of the ADA:
With all the laws,
All the gains, we press forward.
For equality of opportunity is not fated.
And, justice is not fixed.
They must be hard won.