Ryan, who uses a wheelchair, is looking for a job. The first place he tries is physically inaccessible, and the second place refuses even to interview him. When he then goes into the city to look for a job, he needs to take public transportation. However, the bus doesn’t have a lift or ramp, so he’s late to his interview and doesn’t get the job.
These examples demonstrate the types of discrimination people with disabilities faced before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. After World War I and II, many veterans came back with injuries, and disability rights became a more mainstream topic. Disability activists advocated for a law that would protect people with disabilities from discrimination.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, is a civil rights law signed by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, and requires public accommodations to comply with accessibility regulations.
Despite the growing recognition of the discrimination that disabled people faced, the Americans with Disabilities Act faced much opposition in Congress. For instance, religious groups protested, partly because the ADA labels religious institutions as public accommodations, meaning that they would be required to spend money on structural changes. Other primary opponents were businesses and corporations, who argued that the ADA would require them to spend millions and prove disastrous to small businesses because of the economic costs.
Fortunately, many activists strove towards equality despite the challenges. Justin Dart Junior was one such activist whose experience with polio left him in a wheelchair. He is often called the “Godfather of the ADA” and was present at its signing. Patrisha Wright, a legally blind woman, was the main force behind lobbying lawmakers to pass the bill and known as “The General” for her work.
One well-remembered event that helped the passage of the ADA is the Capitol Crawl. On March 3, 1990, over 1,000 people marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress pass the ADA. Once they arrived at the Capitol, around sixty of them got rid of their wheelchairs and mobility aids and crawled up the Capitol steps to demonstrate the inaccessibility of many buildings’ architecture. The event was just one part of a week-long protest, organized by the American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, or ADAPT. The day after the Capitol Crawl, police arrested 104 people at a protest inside the Capitol rotunda. About five months later, partly spurred on by this event, Congress passed the Act, and President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990.
How It Works
The ADA contains five titles. Title I pertains to employment and states that a “covered entity,” or a business with fifteen or more employees, cannot discriminate against people with physical or mental disabilities. This section includes job applications, hiring practices, firing, job training, promotions, and terms of employment. The title also requires covered entities to provide reasonable accommodations, like schedule changes, text-to-voice capabilities on computers, and physical accessibility. However, employers do not have to provide accommodations that would create an “undue hardship.” The exact terms of what this phrase constitutes have been the subject of several court cases.
Title II pertains to public entities, including school districts and buildings owned by local, state, or federal governments. It also includes all public transportation, like buses and trains, as well as public housing. Title III pertains to public accommodations, like hotels and stores, which are legally required to be made accessible. Even the failure to remove barriers counts as discrimination, meaning that buildings constructed before the ADA still have obligations. However, this fact is only true if the changes can be “easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense.” This section also includes protections for service animals and the right to auxiliary aids, like assistive listening devices.
Title IV pertains to telecommunications, requiring all telecommunications companies to ensure equivalent services for people with disabilities, mainly people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have speech impediments. Title V pertains to technical provisions and includes an anti-retaliation provision.
The ADA changed the landscape of America for those with disabilities. It provided them with greater access and accessibility, as well as legal rights to fall back on. However, there are still many issues, and people with disabilities continue to face discrimination. Some activists point out that the ADA is not a cure-all, and there is no hotline to call for violations. People can submit violation reports, but not every report can be investigated and the initial review can take up to three months. To make their voices heard, people often have to sue, which takes significant amounts of time and money, making it an unrealistic option for many.
Despite the progress that the ADA made, only 19.1% percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 69.5% of non-disabled people in 2018. Moreover, people with disabilities are often paid a subminimum wage, averaging around $2.15 an hour. This action is legal due to a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which allows employers to pay employees based on productivity. Businesses argue that they are providing job training and opportunities to those who would go without them. Many disability activists argue that these wages keep them in poverty and are one reason why there is such a low employment percentage among people with disabilities.
In the early 2000s, a new branch of disability activism formed. Instead of disability rights, which focuses on gaining legal rights like the ADA, disability justice focuses on the intersections between ableism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Disability justice advocates argue that while the ADA made a difference, the path toward equality and equity necessitates more than just legal rights.