27 Years After the Americans With Disabilities Act, Has the Nation Kept Its Promise of Equality?

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Commentary Human Rights

27 Years After the Americans With Disabilities Act, Has the Nation Kept Its Promise of Equality?

Robyn Powell

The ADA's passage marked an important milestone for people with disabilities. Many say it was the first time they felt like they actually had rights.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. Its goals are laudable: to “assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” for people with disabilities.

But 27 years after the passage of this landmark civil rights legislation, the ADA’s promise to people with disabilities has not yet been fully achieved—and, in fact, it is in peril.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Its passage marked an important milestone for people with disabilities. Many say it was the first time they felt like they actually had rights.

Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, writer, and disability advocate from New Jersey was in high school when the ADA became law.

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“I remember every second of the signing of the ADA into law. I remember thinking it would change everything,” Zayid told Rewire.

The ADA was not passed overnight. Rather, it was the result of tenacious advocacy by people with disabilities and allies. In fact, while the ADA enjoyed bipartisan support, the bill moved very slowly through Congress, having been introduced in the House and Senate in 1988. Of course, there was activism by the disability community for many years prior. Frustrated by the lack of movement of the legislation, in March 1990, dozens of disability activists got out of their wheelchairs and climbed up the steps of the Capitol building in protest. The Capitol Crawl, as it became known, attracted enormous media attention and pushed Congress to finally pass the law.

Because of the ADA’s far-reaching mandates, people with disabilities enjoy increased opportunity to live, work, and play in their communities. For instance, the ADA requires movie theaters to provide closed captioning and audio descriptions, which allow people who are Deaf or blind equal access to movie-going. Polling places must be accessible to people with disabilities, which includes the provision of accessible voting machines. Employers cannot discriminate against disabled employees and must provide reasonable accommodations. Moreover, hotels are required to be fully accessible, including pools, which must have lifts. Wheelchair ramps, accessible bathroom stalls, sign language interpretation at events—they are all common because of the law. And since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C. decision in 1999, which found that the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities violates the ADA, more people with disabilities are living in their communities than ever before.

Indeed, the ADA touches nearly every aspect of everyday life for people with disabilities.

For younger people with disabilities, having rights under the ADA has been commonplace. Rebecca Cokley, a disability rights activist and former executive director of the National Council on Disability, explained to Rewire, “I have the fortune of growing up as part of the ADA Generation, the first generation of advocates that grew up with IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] and ADA working in concert, so I had the expectation of going to college and getting a job.” IDEA, originally titled the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975 and required all students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education. However, once students graduated from school, they did not have similar legal protections before the ADA.

Vilissa Thompson also considers herself part of the ADA generation. Thompson is the founder and CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. She is also a social worker, disability consultant, and writer in South Carolina who focuses on the intersectional disabled experience. Although Thompson was only 4 years old when the ADA was enacted and does not remember its passage, she told Rewire that it has “undeniably” affected her life: “I know that my life would have been entirely different if I was born in a different generation other than the ADA generation.”

“The ADA declared that I had a right to be included in the spaces that others take for granted. I could not be discriminated against based on my disability,” Thompson continued.

Of course, the ADA is not flawless. People with disabilities continue to encounter barriers to obtaining employment. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is only 20 percent versus nearly 69 percent for people without disabilities.

As a comedian and actress, Zayid told Rewire that she still experiences discrimination in the workplace. The ADA “hasn’t helped me in Hollywood,” she said. “To this day, most sets at studios are not ADA compliant. I am not a wheelchair user, so this has been less of a boundary for me than others, but still a huge obstacle.”

“The ADA has not helped me at all in my career. Sometimes I feel like the ADA is specifically designed to do the absolute minimum to accommodate disabled people,” Zayid continued. Zayid’s experience is not unique; the underrepresentation of actors with disabilities in Hollywood is a significant issue that stems from ongoing discrimination. According to a University of Southern California Annenberg Report, only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in films were disabled in 2016. More troubling still, only 19 percent of those were women with disabilities.

Thompson, who is a wheelchair user and lives in Winnsboro, South Carolina, also believes the ADA is far from perfect. “With any mandate, there are shortcomings. One of the issues I have seen regards building access. As a wheelchair user, there are still buildings in my town and throughout the country that are not ADA-compliant,” she said.

“This means that I cannot access these facilities and the services within them easily as others. This is a barrier to inclusion that does not get the recognition it needs,” she told Rewire.

Enforcement continues to be one of the biggest challenges related to the ADA, in that it is driven only by complaints. If a person with a disability encounters discrimination, they may file a lawsuit. Businesses, if found guilty, are generally required to resolve the ADA violation and pay attorney’s fees for the complainant. There is no monetary benefit to people with disabilities to file such lawsuits, and they often take several years. In other words, the onus is on people with disabilities to ensure businesses comply with their legal obligations.

Zayid told Rewire, “I am disturbed by how few businesses choose to comply with ADA regulations and how the disability community is forced to police violators.”

Employment and physical accessibility are not the only two areas where compliance with the ADA has not been entirely effective. The ADA has also been slow to catch up with advances in technology. Although the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has stated that the ADA applies to state and local government websites, it has repeatedly delayed issuing relevant regulations. Notably, the Trump administration recently placed these regulations on the “inactive list,” signaling that issuance is unlikely at this time. Moreover, ride-sharing services, such as Uber, have faced lawsuits for noncompliance with the ADA.

Disregard for the ADA—and, by extension, the rights of people with disabilities—can have life-and-death implications. For example, recent research indicates that people of color with disabilities experience high rates of police brutality and killing. Cokley told Rewire, “I think the fact that the ADA isn’t taken into account as often as it should be in how law enforcement treats disabled people is extremely problematic. Fifty percent of those being killed by cops are people with disabilities.”

“This is clearly a problem, and not just one of training,” Cokley continued.

It is important, too, to recognize that the disability rights movement intersects with other movements, such as the LGBTQ rights movement and the fight for racial equality. As Zayid told Rewire, “The disability community is not a monolith.”

“As a disabled Black woman, I constantly worry about how the rights of disabled people of color will be impacted if legislation like the ADA [is] not upheld to the highest degree. We face disparities within education, employment, state violence, et cetera, at higher rates than our white counterparts, and if these mandates are weakened due to ableism or ignorance, this can mean grave danger for those of us within this intersection,” Thompson pointed out.

Despite its flaws, most people with disabilities believe in the ADA. However, as I recently wrote for Rewire, Congress is currently considering changes to the law that would completely undermine its intent and result in less compliance by businesses. Cokley told Rewire, “I think the fact that we are still fighting for the preservation of the law is unacceptable. Twenty-seven years and people are still trying to roll back our right to engage in society is deplorable.”

Many in the disability community are especially worried that the federal administration will not enforce the ADA and other disability rights under Trump to the extent it did during the Obama presidency. Indeed, the DOJ under President Obama made investigating and enforcing ADA violations a top priority and had many successes.

Thompson explained to Rewire, “I am concerned that discrimination cases will not be investigated as thoroughly as they should be. I fear that our rights will be dismissed, and our ability to navigate society will be hindered …. The ableist mentality of this administration can severely impede our independence and freedom in ways that can dial back the clock of progress we have made.”

These concerns are not unfounded. Indeed, Trump’s personal businesses have been sued nearly a dozen times for alleged ADA violations. Clearly Trump does not believe that businesses should comply with the law, so why would he urge the DOJ to go after others who also violate the ADA?

And danger to disability rights goes beyond the ADA. As Cokley noted, the Senate and House’s proposed cuts to Medicaid—the primary health insurance program for people with disabilities, which provides supports that allow them to live at home—would be devastating for the disability community.

According to Zayid, “Trump’s cabinet appointees are verbally against disabled rights when it comes to education, health care, and equality in general.”

As one of the nation’s most comprehensive civil rights laws, the ADA unquestionably has flaws. As Zayid told Rewire, “There is much work to be done with the ADA, whether it comes to education, accessibility, or acceptance.” However, that does not mean that we should forget it altogether. Instead, we as a nation should recommit to truly ensuring equality for all Americans, including people with disabilities.