ADA at 25: Years After Landmark Civil Rights Law, Some Wonder, 'Where's the Equality?'

As events this week mark 25 years since the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), rights advocates stress that a tremendous amount of work still needs to be done towards reaching equality.

President George H.W. Bush signed the act into law in 1990 following decades of work by activists to make it happen.

The impact of the civil rights law has been huge—according to the U.S. Census Bureau there were 56.7 million disabled people in 2010, and the law ushered in sweeping changes to transportation systems, public accommodations, and employment practices.

Disability rights scholar Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., who first drafted the legislation, writes in an op-ed at the Washington Post Friday: “The ADA was a response to an appalling problem: widespread, systemic, inhumane discrimination against people with disabilities.” Indeed, for those who’ve grown up in a post-ADA world, the barriers before the legislation may be shocking.

Burgdorf writes that before the law, “Large numbers of children with disabilities were systematically excluded from American public school”; “State residential treatment institutions for people with disabilities were generally abysmal”; “Most public transportation systems made few, if any, accommodations for persons with disabilities”; and “People with disabilities were routinely denied rights that most members of our society take for granted, including the right to vote (sometimes by state law, other times by inaccessible polling places), to obtain a driver’s license, to enter the courts and to hold public office.”

And such treatment was met with protests. As the Philadelphia Daily News reports:


Such historic, as well as ongoing actions by those within the disability justice movement, can offer lessons for other groups as well.  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer disabled writer, performer, poet, healer and teacher, told Laura Flanders last month that “there is so much that non-disabled activists can learn from disabled people.”

“I think that a lot of non-disabled people or people who don’t identify as disabled yet are used to thinking of disability only in terms of, ‘Oh, we need to get a ramp’—and that’s really important.  But it’s a really huge cognitive leap for non-disabled folks to become aware that disabled folks have our histories and cultures of resistance.  We have incredible organizing skills that non-disabled people need to learn from.”

Though strides have been made towards more inclusion, the barriers this group continues to face is striking, as Rebecca Vallas, the Director of Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, notes:

President Obama also commented on the gaps that still remain, saying this week that “this fight is not over.”

“We’ve still got to do more to make sure that people with disabilities are paid fairly for their labor; to make sure they are safe in their homes and their communities; to make sure they have access to technology, including high-speed Internet, that allows for their full participation in this 21st-century economy. We’ve still got to do more to make sure that children with disabilities get every opportunity to learn and acquire the skills and the sense of self-worth that will last a lifetime,” he said.

Will Reeve, the son of the late Christopher and Dana Reeve, and a board member of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, wrote this week that “we must use this anniversary as a launch pad to safeguard the rights of individuals living with disabilities so that equality becomes part of our everyday existence.”

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