Today in history: The Americans with Disabilities Act signed 25 years ago

This Sunday, July 26, marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Our country is a very different place a quarter of a century later: Every time you see wheelchair cutouts on sidewalk corners, or Braille signage, ramps up to building entrances, sign language interpretation at public events, or parking spaces for the handicapped, remember that it was dedicated activism that accomplished these measures so that the benefits of living in a modern society can be accessed by millions more people.

In 1986, the National Council on Disability recommended enactment of the ADA, drafting a bill which was introduced in the House and Senate in 1988. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) authored what became the final bill and was its chief sponsor in the Senate. Harkin delivered part of his introduction speech in sign language, saying it was so his deaf brother could understand. It was passed by the Senate (76-8) in 1989, and by the House of Representatives in May 1990 by unanimous voice vote. It was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H. W. Bush, in a successful demonstration of bipartisanship that would be difficult to imagine today.

The ADA is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics illegal. In addition, unlike the Civil Rights Act, the ADA also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

ADA disabilities include both mental and physical medical conditions. A condition does not need to be severe or permanent to be a disability. As disability activists frequently point out, we are all “temporarily abled.” Tomorrow you may find yourself covered under ADA.

Sections of the ADA treat such areas as employment, public entities and public transportation, housing, accommodations, telecommunications, and an anti-retaliation or coercion provision.

Direct action

Shortly before the act was passed, disability rights activists with physical disabilities assembled without warning in front of the Capitol Building, shed their crutches, wheelchairs, powerchairs and other assistive devices, and proceeded to crawl and pull their bodies up all 100 of the Capitol’s front steps. As they did so, many of them chanted “ADA now,” and “Vote now.” Some activists who remained at the bottom of the steps held signs and yelled words of encouragement to the “Capitol Crawlers.” Jennifer Keelan, a second grader with cerebral palsy, was videotaped as she pulled herself up the steps, using mostly her hands and arms, saying, “I’ll take all night if I have to.” This direct action is reported to have “inconvenienced” several senators and to have pushed them to approve the act. The “Capitol Crawl” of 1990 is seen by many present-day disability activists in the United States as being the single action most responsible for propelling the ADA into law.

Broad swaths of the business community opposed ADA, citing enormous costs and “a disastrous impact on many small businesses struggling to survive.”

On signing the measure, President Bush said:

“I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We’ve all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation; and we’ve been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred…. Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.

Photo: Drano Lake accessible fishing platform signage by USFWS Pacific. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.



Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.