The Americans with Disabilities Act: Then and Now

Green Road Sign against a blue sky that says "Equal Rights This Way"
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On Thursday, July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

I was in my first year working at a Center for Independent Living, and my understanding of disability was evolving. I was starting to realize that inaccessibility and disability prejudice were more than just personal annoyances. I was beginning to feel that simply hoping for my needs to be met wasn’t enough; I should be expecting more. I was discovering that disabled people were organizing around something more empowering than charity telethons: our rights.

However, even though I’ve had physical disabilities all my life, at age 23 I still knew very little of substance about disability rights. The idea of a big civil rights bill for Americans with disabilities was exciting to me, but I had practical questions:

– We know how to make buildings more accessible, but how do we get architects and builders to bother doing it?

– How much can we really expect strangers to meet our “special needs?”

– Can we actually turn our backs on charity, for real, and rely on something more solid?

The ADA bill was coming to a final vote, then moving into its first implementation phase, just when I was grappling with these basic questions. As it happens, the ADA had answers …

– The ADA applied a broad set of physical accessibility standards to businesses and public buildings. A baseline of accessibility would be standard operating procedure nationwide. Accessibility would no longer be viewed as an optional add-on.

– The ADA fleshed out the idea of “reasonable accommodations.” It’s not so much a menu of specific required services, but rather an affirmation that adapting to each disabled person is a legal responsibility, not a kindness. The term suggests that some adaptations might be, in fact, more than a disabled person can “reasonably” expect. But, being accommodated or not would no longer be an all or nothing proposition. And, the fact than an accommodation might be a bit hard or require effort would no longer put it out of reach.

– Above all, the ADA strongly established that both broad accessibility and individual accommodation are civil rights. Disabled people have not just a moral right, but a legal right to equal access and opportunity. Most significantly, these rights apply to everyone with a disability, no matter what the disability, whether people feel like respecting them or not, and regardless of the character or people skills of the disabled person involved. You don’t have to act a certain way, or be liked and admired personally, to get what you need.

Figuring out how the ADA was supposed to work helped me understand my role in society as a disabled person. I think it has done the same for a lot of disabled people since then, and that by itself is enough to make the law a success.

On the other hand, a lot of the ideas I absorbed in the early days of the ADA have turned out to be wrong.

Accessibility requirements didn’t do much in older buildings and neighborhoods. Business owners weren’t excited about attending free seminars on ADA compliance and serving customers with disabilities. ADA requirements are technically the law, but in practice, the law functions more like an especially good set of suggestions … helpful, but not quite the righteous enforcer we expected.

Every July, we celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act, while we also ask ourselves and each other: Is the ADA still relevant? Does it still matter?

I think it does. The ADA is still the most complete, practical roadmap for disability rights we have. Its principles and practices are the backbone of our movement, and probably still will be 27 years from now. And it’s still the introductory class for every disabled person trying to figure out, for the first time, what disability rights can actually mean in real life.


Andrew Pulrang is a disability blogger, co-coordinator of #CripTheVote, and worked in Independent Living for 22 years.

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