The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation for disabled Americans, and yet many people know almost nothing about it. What they do know is filled with myths, legends and misinformation. Want the real deal on the ADA and how it affects you and people in your life? Read on!
History of the ADA
It was the late 1980s, and the HIV/AIDS crisis was raging. Assertive activist groups like ACT UP! and ADAPT were fighting for the rights of disabled persons, as the Deaf President Now! caused shockwaves at Gallaudet University. Disabled Americans were asserting their right to live freely, healthily and happily in U.S. society, after decades of activist work to carve out small civil rights victories.
An early version of the ADA was introduced in 1988, and it failed. In 1990, the hard work of activists and Senator Tom Harkin (who signed part of the speech introducing it to the floor for the benefit of his Deaf brother) brought the ADA into a new perspective. Disabled activists descended upon Washington for the Capitol Crawl, a watershed moment in disability rights that went almost unremarked in national media as activists from 30 states removed their assistive devices and crawled out of their wheelchairs to climb the Capitol steps. It was painful and grueling, but it sent a clear message: Congress passed the ADA, and it was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, who famously stated: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Promise of the ADA
What did it actually do? The ADA was closely modeled on other civil rights legislation. It was designed to guarantee free and equal access to housing, education, employment, public venues, telecommunications and public transportation. Under the ADA, it would no longer be legal to present barriers such as lack of wheelchair access or refusal to accommodate service animals. People who reported violations would be protected from retaliation, creating an environment where disabled people could push for access without being under pressure from fear.
The ADA set out clear standards and guidelines for the building code, public transit and technology. These are evolving over time with input from consultants, disability rights advocates and industry professionals. Recognizing that implementation of these changes could be a lengthy process, the drafters of the ADA took care to create a staggered schedule that allowed people to slowly come up to the standards, rather than obliging a sudden switchover.
The promise? An accessible world where people with disabilities, including physical, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, could go about their daily lives without having to fear discrimination, whether it came in the form of exclusion from jobs or a flight of stairs standing in the way of their favorite bars.
Even before it passed, myths were already circulating about the ADA. It would flood the court with nuisance lawsuits. It would reduce employment for disabled people. It would hamstring landlords and small businesses with expensive ADA retrofits and accommodations. Many of these myths stemmed from major industry lobbyists, such as hotels, which were very resistant to making ADA-required modifications — note, for example, that it took 23 years for hotel swimming pools and spas to meet accessibility mandates.
How true are these myths?
Let’s take, for example, the myth that businesses will be stuck with huge bills for modifications.
It’s false. The ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations, and for new construction to be accessible, but existing architecture only needs to be modified if it can reasonably be done, without excessive cost. Likewise with the myth that the government doesn’t provide assistance. In fact, grants are available to help businesses get in compliance.
One of the most common myths is that the courts are flooded with nuisance suits on ADA-related topics. This simply isn’t the case: the accusations of “serial lawsuits” and related issues haven’t come true, in part because of the expense and complexity involved in filing suits. And while the DOJ has been active in filing suits on ADA-related matters, it’s been very selective, choosing major issues and suits that will have a larger social impact.
How about the myth that the ADA requires employers to hire disabled people even if they’re not qualified?
Nope. Employers can make any hiring decisions they want, as long as they’re not based on disability (and certain other characteristics, like race). If a candidate isn’t qualified, she’s not qualified, and her disability status is irrelevant. If two candidates are equally qualified and one is disabled, the employer’s decision can hinge on any number of factors … except for the disability.
The ADA is a flexible, living document that provides considerable room for evaluating individual cases fairly and honestly, and for determining the best options in a given situation. It recognizes that disability can be variable, as can the specifics of a business’ needs and concerns. Far from being a rigid, draconian document that creates an undue burden, the ADA helps to extend civil rights to the disability community — while recognizing that discrimination can’t be solved by legislation alone.
Photo credit: Army Medicine.