Brief History of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The history of the ADA did not begin on July 26, 1990 at the signing ceremony at the White House. It did not begin in 1988 when the first ADA was introduced in Congress. The ADA story began a long time ago in cities and towns throughout the United States when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children. It began with the establishment of local groups to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. It began with the establishment of the independent living movement which challenged the notion that people with disabilities needed to be institutionalized, and which fought for and provided services for people with disabilities to live in the community.
The ADA owes its birthright not to any one person, or any few, but to the many thousands of people who make up the disability rights movement – people who have worked for years organizing and attending protests, licking envelopes, sending out alerts, drafting legislation, speaking, testifying, negotiating, lobbying, filing lawsuits, being arrested – doing whatever they could for a cause they believed in.
There are far too many people whose commitment and hard work contributed to the passage of this historic piece of disability civil rights legislation to be able to give appropriate credit by name. Without the work of so many – without the disability rights movement – there would be no ADA.
The disability rights movement, over the last couple of decades, has made the injustices faced by people with disabilities visible to the American public and to politicians. This required reversing the centuries long history of “out of sight, out of mind” that the segregation of disabled people served to promote. The disability rights movement adopted many of the strategies of the civil rights movements before it.
Like the African-Americans who sat in at segregated lunch counters and refused to move to the back of the bus, people with disabilities sat in federal buildings, obstructed the movement of inaccessible buses, and marched through the streets to protest injustice.
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Brief Disability Legislation Timeline
1986 — The National Council on the Handicapped (National Council on Disability) proposes the first “comprehensive” equal opportunity law.
1990 — The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) becomes law on July 26, 1990.
1991 — Title I, II, III, and IV become law. Title I prohibits workplace discrimination; Title II secures access to services, programs, and activities provided by the state and local governments such as public schools; Title III requires public accommodations such as wheelchair ramps; Title IV provides telecommunications services for the hearing and speech-impaired.
1999-2002 — The Supreme Court narrows the definition of “disability,” excluding people who use “mitigating measures” such as medication.
2008 — The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) becomes law and provides broad protection from discrimination for people with cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, and other conditions.
2010 — Rosa’s law passes changing “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” in most journals.
2014 — Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act passes, allowing people with disabilities to set up tax-free savings account for essential services without losing government benefits.
2015 — The 25th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act is July 26, 2015.
2020 — The 3oth Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is July 26, 2020.
Featured Disability Film
The Reason I Jump is an immersive cinematic exploration of neurodiversity through the experiences of nonspeaking autistic people from around the world, based on the best-selling book by Naoki Higashida.. The film blends Higashida’s revelatory insights into autism, written when he was just 13, with intimate portraits of five remarkable young people. It opens a window for audiences into an intense and overwhelming, but often joyful, sensory universe.
The full movie can be streamed on Netflix, Google Play, or YouTube.