Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 33!

Celebrating an Important Civil Rights Law

Three years ago, July 26, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of an important and influential piece of civil rights legislation that has impacted all sectors of life — the Americans with Disabilities Act (also known as the ADA).

Background of the ADA

In 1971, a judge in New York declared that the most discriminated population in the United States is those with disabilities, and several other judges agreed. According to the last U.S. Census figures, about 54.5 million Americans have some type of disability—nearly 20% of the U.S. population. However, in the 1970’s, public buildings and transportation were not accessible to many disabled individuals. In particular, the public education system profoundly discriminated against children with disabilities. Before 1973, roughly one million children per year were left out of the school system and another three million children were not accommodated in the classroom. The education issue was not corrected until the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. But this legislation made it clear that this was just the beginning of the need to change the situation of discrimination against the disabled.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a civil rights bill initially co-written in the mid-1980’s by a lawyer who had been affected by polio as a child. The disability community was initially a bit skeptical of the law at first because they were concerned that it would not go far enough in improving accessibility for all disabled people. Others were concerned about the cost burden shouldered by businesses. Congress itself was reluctant to include itself in the language which was a major issue in holding up the legislation. At one point, 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who had been born with Cerebral Palsy, demonstrated how difficult it was to access the capitol by crawling up the steps. This put a lot of public pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill, which was eventually signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, mobility impairments make up roughly half the population of people with disabilities, making transportation one of the top issues that needed to be addressed. This was a significant impediment for many disabled Americans to participate in many other life functions most of us take for granted. Whether because of aging or from birth, Americans with mobility challenges had significant obstacles in the way of transportation. This affects not only them, but the families who care for these individuals as well. Rising awareness of the problem contributed to a push to get legislation passed to provide a broad range of accommodations for disabled Americans.

Goals and Breakdown of the ADA

The ADA’s aim was to go far beyond transportation. It is divided into five sections called “Titles”:

  • Employment: Employers may not discriminate against people with disabilities. This includes recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay and social activities.
  • Public Services for State and Local Government: All services, programs and activities of state and local governments must be accessible by people with disabilities. Some examples include access to government buildings, recreation, voting and social services.
  • Public Accomodations and Services Run by Public Entities: Public transit must be accessible by people with disabilities.
  • Telecommunications: Phone companies must provide services to callers with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate.
  • Miscellaneous Provisions: Retaliation is not allowed against someone who has asserted their rights under the ADA; stating that a person with a disability is not required to accept an aid or accommodation if they do not want to; and directing certain federal agencies to issue guidance explaining the law.

The ADA opened up the world in a way that had never been accessible before, mandating accessible public transportation, building access, employment opportunities, and technology to broaden public access. Indeed, technology has improved since then in a way that had not been previously imagined when the bill was first signed, particularly with respect to telecommunications. What is particularly interesting is that listening devices have helped both the hearing impaired and the able-bodied alike and have helped us all get through the pandemic. Now that such technologies as Bluetooth and other devices are in demand by the general population, they have become more common and cheaper as a result. The ADA was later amended on September 25, 2008 after several Supreme Court rulings to broaden the definition of “disability”, and to acknowledge the disability status of people with AIDS/HIV.

The ADA has profoundly changed our country: from handicapped stalls to ramps to disabled parking places, the effects of this legislation are constantly apparent. Public awareness and public visibility of people with disabilities is becoming more commonplace. And with the increase in some conditions such as mental illness and autism, the population of people with disabilities continues to grow.

People with Disabilities

The ADA has not been a panacea for all the issues faced by people with disabilities in our country. But it has brought tangible benefits to many who have wanted to play a greater role in society, and therefore brought benefits to society as a whole. Another added benefit is that more people with disabilities are now speaking up and in some cases becoming celebrities in their own right. While one of the first nationally recognized disabled celebrities was Helen Keller for deafblindness, there are more and more celebrities who have spoken out about their disabilities: Temple Grandin and Greta Thunberg (autism); Irish authors Christy Brown (“My Left Foot”) and Chris Nolan (Cerebral Palsy); a number of congresspeople; and artists such as paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan. I do not attempt to provide an exhaustive list here, but am only highlighting a few individuals who have come out in the public eye not just because of their disability, but their talent to provide leadership, create meaningful works and contribute to society in a significant way. As a result, we all have benefited from their gifts and talents.

The ADA can have a positive impact for anyone, even if it doesn’t apply to them presently. An accident may render someone incapacitated; a child might be born with a birth defect; and as we age our bodies become more limited. Our life circumstances can change in a heartbeat, and not always for the better. As a result, any individual who may acquire a disability has legal protections now under the law as a part of the ADA. Even if the disability is only temporary, it provides transportation, communication, job rights and other benefits for as long as that disability remains an impediment “to one or more basic life functions”.

Libraries and the ADA

Libraries have led the forefront of inclusion to materials for people with disabilities. The Library of Congress opened a reading room in Braille and other materials for the blind and visually impaired in 1897, and many libraries have been offering alternate materials for visually impaired patrons for over fifty years—long before the ADA. In 1961—nearly thirty years before the ADA was passed--the American Library Association (ALA) wrote the first set of standards to make sure that people with disabilities were included in public libraries, and this has been updated many times since then. This made libraries often the first government institution to ensure that people with disabilities had access to their services, recognizing the equal needs of people with disabilities to be included. In the digital age this continues to be a challenge, but libraries have always risen to the occasion and are dedicated to continue to do so.

Looking to the Future

The ADA is a step in the right direction to broaden the lives of people with disabilities. While the situation for the disabled is not the same as it was in 1971, many challenges still remain. Technology has helped in many ways and created new impediments for people with disabilities as well. We are a long way of being a truly inclusive society, and although it remains a challenging world, the ADA is a step in the right direction to improve the lives of disabled Americans.

San Jose Public Library

The San José Public Library is committed to taking all reasonable steps to provide access to all members of the community, including people with disabilities. Feel free to explore our free materials, services, programs, and adaptive technology for people with disabilities. Please check out our accessibility website (below) for more services the San Jose Library offers to make San Jose a more inclusive and disability-friendly place to be!

Resources About the ADA

Accessibility Under the Americans With Disabilities Act and Other Laws A Guide to Enforcement, book cover
The Americans With Disabilities Act Hiring, Accommodating, and Supervising Employees With Disabiliti, book cover
All the Way to the Top How One Girl's Fight for Americans With Disabilities Changed Everything, book cover
Disability visibility : first-person stories from the twenty-first century / edited by Alice Wong., book cover
The Disability Experience: Working Toward Belonging, book cover

Celebrities with Disabilities

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (John Callahan--Paraplegia), book cover
Thinking in Pictures (Temple Grandin, Autism), book cover
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (Greta Thunberg, Asperger's Syndrome), book cover
The Courage to Compete (Abbey Curran--Cerebral Palsy), book cover
The Center Cannot Hold (Elyn Saks--Schizophrenia), book cover
Rolling Warrior: the Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels, book cover
Shaquem Griffin: Don’t tell me what I can’t do, book cover

Resources on Selected Disabilities

Understanding Cerebral Palsy, book cover
Autism: A Short Introduction, book cover
The Art of Being Deaf, book cover
The Edge of Every Day (Schizophrenia), book cover
Dyslexia--A Complete Guide for Parents, book cover

Recent Releases Regarding Disabilities

The Future is Disabled, book cover
Demystifying Disability , book cover
Read This to Get Smarter, book cover
About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times, book cover
Positively Purple, book cover
Beyond Accessibility Compliance, book cover
Understanding Physical Disabilities, book cover
Fighting for Yes!, book cover