Then and Now: The 30th Anniversary of the Passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act

By: Madeline Louis

Individuals with disabilities in the United States have not always had the privilege of automatic access to opportunities the way able-bodied individuals have had access.  Prior to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, individuals with disabilities had to fight for rights that “regular” people didn’t think twice about. Those who depended on a wheelchair to get around were required to abandon their wheelchairs if they wanted to utilize public transportation.  Restaurants and grocery stores could refuse to serve or sell to someone because he or she had a disability. Before the ADA, having a disability was a valid reason to be refused a job. If a disabled individual managed to find work, he or she could legally be paid less than an able-bodied co-worker for doing the same work. In addition to these legitimate barriers to success, individuals with disabilities often had to wear diapers as there was no guarantee that an accessible bathroom would be available to them.

It should be acknowledged, however, that the suffering of the disabled community did not disappear the moment the ADA was enacted, nor did the need for the act surface organically. The disability rights movement was, and continues to be, a hard-fought battle by an army of advocates. This included frustrated parents disappointed by the fact that their disabled child was constantly being denied the opportunity to participate in sports or play at a park because of the lack of access. This included the individuals who started the conversation challenging the idea that individuals with disabilities needed to be institutionalized. After decades of fighting, this army saw its first real win in the language of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which effectively banned discrimination by federal fund recipients on the basis of disability. The reason this section was so novel was because it was the first time that individuals with disabilities were recognized as a class that consisted of varying diagnoses, but nevertheless faced similar discrimination.

Does this even affect very many people? Though it can be easy to think that because you or I do not know anyone who is in a wheelchair, there can’t be that much of an impact. The truth is, this has a widespread impact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26% (1 in 4) adults in the United States have some type of disability.  For children, the Census Bureau found that 6.2% have a disability. When the ADA was passed thirty years ago, it changed the lives of millions of Americans. The ADA bans discrimination on the basis of disability in all areas of public life. The Act’s goals are to provide equal employment opportunities, access to government services, access to public and commercial facilities, and opportunities to communicate using telecommunications.

There have been major improvements to the act over its thirty-year history. First, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 broadened the interpretation of the term disability by adding language stating that learning, reading, thinking and concentrating constitute life activities under the definition of disability. Because the ADA defines disability as an impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities, this language expanded the scope of the ADA to protect students with learning disabilities by mandating that schools provide reasonable accommodations. This addition to the ADA had an extremely broad reach because of prevalence of learning disabilities among school children. In 2012, a survey done by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) concluded that 8% of children ages three through seventeen live with a learning disability. The ADAAA provided access to so many individuals living with a previously unrecognized disability. Another massive improvement was the addition of transportation regulations stating that transportation entities are required to make reasonable accommodations so that disabled individuals have access. For individuals with physical disabilities, this meant no more searching for specific means of transportation that may or may not have accommodated them. According to the CDC in 2018, 16.3 percent of American adults have some physical functioning difficulty due to a disability. For these individuals, these transportation accommodations mean more independence and access to more opportunities.

There is no doubt that the ADA changed the lives of so many. Individuals with disabilities are deserving of equal access and opportunity. This does not mean that all is resolved; there is still more to be done. The employment rate, for example, among individuals with disabilities is around 36% which pales in comparison to the 77.2% employment rate for able-bodied individuals. While businesses have been working on creating more employment opportunities, it is not yet commonplace. The low employment rate affects access to things like safe housing and financial independence and thus needs to be raised in the future. Another area that needs improvement is the discrimination faced by individuals with “invisible illnesses” like learning difficulties or chronic conditions. Even though the ADA protects these individuals, there is still a stigma that makes it difficult for those individuals to access workplace accommodations for fear of being judged. Today, some employees who suffer from invisible disabilities avoid disclosing their condition all together because they don’t want it to disadvantage them. As time goes on, hopefully the stigma surrounding these disabilities will decrease through education and awareness.

To improve the employment rate, employers need to better inform applicants. Many individuals with disabilities may be intimidated to apply for certain jobs for various reasons. If it becomes commonplace for employers to add a disclaimer to certain job postings that explicitly states that a job is accessible and manageable for applicants with disabilities, it may encourage individuals who may not have otherwise considered it, to do so. Additionally, if more employers were educated about the situation and encouraged to consider it, it is my belief that over time, employers may consider choosing a qualified disabled applicant over an equally qualified able-bodied one. This is not to say that these individuals deserve “special” treatment over other applicants. However, the reality of the situation is that an able-bodied candidate would potentially have a much easier time finding another opportunity than a disabled individual. To counteract the stigma around invisible illnesses, the future ADA language should require an employer to disclose all of the accommodations that are available to each new employee upon starting. This will provide those individuals with an idea of what resources they have available to them, rather than expecting them to worry about exposing themselves to negativity in search of those resources.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA’s passing is something that should be celebrated. Over the past thirty years, individuals with disabilities have been recognized and supported by many. Providing equal access to opportunities has undeniably improved the quality of life for Americans with disabilities.

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