July 26, 2020 is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is often just called the ADA. The ADA is a law that was passed by Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and signed by the president in 1990.
The ADA is important because it gives many civil rights to people with disabilities. Civil rights are the things that our society thinks every person should be able to do, or should not be stopped from doing. You might have heard about “civil rights” when it comes to the idea that anyone should be able to vote, regardless of their race or gender. Or, you may have heard about “civil rights” when it comes to gay, lesbian, and queer people being able to get married.
The ADA is about making sure that people with disabilities are able to be part of their communities and that they are treated fairly. Because of the history of how disabled people have been treated, and because of how people with disabilities are still excluded, this is really important.
The ADA has three sections. The first section, “Title 1,” talks about civil rights for people with disabilities when it comes to working. Title 1 says that employers can’t discriminate against people with disabilities. An employer cannot fire someone just because of a disability. Title 1 also says that employers need to make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities. This might mean buying some equipment or re-configuring an office space or even work schedules so that a person with a disability can do their job.
Title 1 also says that employers need to be really clear on what a person actually needs to be able to do in order to do a job. For example, many employers ask that employees have a driver’s license, even though they don’t actually need to drive while they are working. Title 1 says employers must think about what the most important parts of a job are, and to not exclude people who don’t do things the same way as everybody else. Maybe what’s actually important about having a driver’s license is having a form of ID—if this is the case, then the employer should make that clear, since a driver’s license is a way of excluding people.
The second section, Title 2, is about having access to any service that the state or local government provides. The rules in Title 2 make it clear that parks should contain wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and that people are able to request ASL interpreters for events put on at a public library, to give just a few examples.
The third section, Title 3, is about civil rights at businesses. Title 3 has to do with things like captioning in movie theaters and on Netflix, and ramps in parking lots at the mall.
All of these sections are relevant to making things more fair for people with disabilities. For example, put together, they mean that a person who is blind and uses a guide dog can always have their guide dog with them: at work (Title 1), when they go to a city hall meeting (Title 2), and when they go shopping (Title 3). This means that a person who uses a guide dog isn’t blocked from working, participating in their community, or having fun.
When a law is passed, there are sometimes court cases because people disagree on what the law means in a certain situation. A lot of the impact of the ADA came from cases brought before the Supreme Court. One of the most famous ADA cases was Olmstead v. L.C. When the Supreme Court ruled on the Olmstead case, they said that the ADA states that people with disabilities should be served in “the most integrated setting.” What this means is that the first option should be serving people with disabilities in their community, and that decisions about where someone with a disability lives or where they work should not be based on how much money the state does (or doesn’t have), but rather what the person actually wants and what meets their needs. Olmstead reaffirmed what the Independent Living movement has been saying for a long time—people with disabilities want control over their lives, and are an important part of the places where they grow up and live.
The ADA is not the only civil rights law for people with disabilities. The ADA followed Section 504, which was a law that made federal buildings (like courthouses) accessible for people with disabilities. In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act was passed, which added more protections for people with disabilities. Other laws, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) go into detail about how people with disabilities should be treated schools. And, the ADA doesn’t contain information on things like guardianship or SSDI.
It took a lot of work for the ADA to be passed. Something that everyone should know about is the Capitol Crawl, where protesters who used wheelchairs left their wheelchairs at the bottom of the stairs of the Capitol Building at the National Mall to protest inaccessibility and to advocate for the passage of the ADA. This is just one example of disability activism.
I think America still has some work to do before things are completely fair for people with disabilities, but I want to celebrate the ADA for all of the good changes that have happened because of it. What do you hope we will be celebrating on the 40th anniversary of the ADA?
Note: I wrote this post for a few reasons. First of all, I think everyone should be celebrating the ADA AND thinking about what the future of disability rights and disability justice can be. Second, I was concerned that there wasn’t enough ADA celebrating going on that was accessible. I wanted to create a post in Plain English, which I think helps make these ideas available to everyone.