Anniversary of the ADA

By David Morstad

“Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another “independence day,” one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”

George H. W. Bush 1990

Those word s were spoken on July 26, 1990 as President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The words were what they were supposed to be – honest, beautiful and celebratory.   Like all ceremonies, the signing of the ADA recognized the struggle that had gone before and looked to brighter days ahead. It was not a time to highlight uncertainty, opposition and fear on the part of people without disabilities, though a great deal of that swirled about. It continues to do so today.

The withered myths

Over the past 22 years, we have watched a number of the early myths slowly wither away as it was slowly replaced by the truth.

  • It will create expensive mandates for employers in the form of costly accommodations. The US Department of Labor (DOL) reports that the majority of workers with disabilities do not need any accommodations to perform their jobs. For those who do, the cost is usually minimal. The Job Accommodation Network, which is a service of the DOL Office of Disability Employment Policy, reports that two-thirds of accommodations cost less than $500, while many costing nothing at all.
  • Its costs will be bad for private businesses. The definition of what constitutes a disability under the law is broad. Some estimates put the number as high as 18 – 20% of the population. It’s hard to imagine a business that would disregard one-fifth of its potential customer base. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this group has $175 billion in discretionary spending power. Was there ever a more compelling time to be an accessible business?
  • ADA-related lawsuits will overwhelm the courts. Fact: A five-year survey by the Kentucky office of the ADA revealed a total of 650 lawsuits nationwide during that period. When one considers that there are roughly 6 million businesses, 700,000 public and private employers; and 80,000 units of state and local government that must comply, that number is shockingly small.

Where it came from, and where it leads

The signing of the ADA was a landmark event, one that signaled a cultural change in this country. But it didn’t suddenly appear. It was clearly influenced by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which provided a philosophical framework declaring that the United States was indeed equally available to all its citizens.  In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed, creating an historic shift in disability public policy, one that banned discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal funds. Eventually, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was amended provide  disability anti-discrimination provisions. Finally, the ADA was introduced in congress in 1988 and signed into law two years later. That evolution continues.

We have become – or, at least, are becoming – a nation that fully expects shopping malls, airports and restaurants to be accessible, and fully expects employers not to discriminate. But we are not there yet. Accessibility is still an issue. So is discrimination. And the ADA continues to be revised, reformed, and reinterpreted. But among its greatest assets may be the fact that, at least to some extent, it makes those of us without disabilities just a little bit nervous about what it holds for the future. That is a sure sign that the movement the ADA represents is indeed moving forward.

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