The Myths and Facts Behind the Americans with Disabilities Act

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.

ADA Myths

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.


Walter G.
Walter G.2 years ago

Oh, BTW, I forgot to include that I'm totally disabled and unemployable according to the VA and Social Security. Spending 6 years in wheelchairs, now walking aided by prosthetics, I remember the attitudes displayed by normally mobile people. After all of the pain thrown at disabled people bybevery nation on earth, this diluted skeleton of a law isba laughing stock.

Walter G.
Walter G.2 years ago

As in the case of many government offerings, the spirit of the proposal becomes distorted to the point of reversal. The law designed to improve a situation changes meaning after litigation after SCOTUS finishes its usual inept and suspect process.

Donna F.
Donna F.2 years ago


Debbie Wood
Debbie Wood2 years ago

continue from below-Some of us can recover and walk, but many do not.

Debbie Wood
Debbie Wood2 years ago

Jacob R. I wonder if you would change your attitude if you became disabled, even for a little while? I had knee replacement surgery a couple years ago. For a few months after surgery, I had to rely on a walker or cane to get around. I could not walk far without getting very tired and in pain. I was doing physical therapy to improve, and I did improve. In fact now I am active and no longer need a cane, at least most days. If it get cold or rains alot my knees sometimes swell and hurt but most days are much better than they were before the surgery. I had to use the disability services, like scooters in stores, parking places, and found that alot of people who aren't disabled are using these, unauthorized. It makes it very hard for those for whom mobility is an issue. I wish all adults could spend just 24 hours disabled, unable to do for themselves without help, it would be an eye opening experience. Try needing desperately to use a restroom, waiting outside the handcapped stall, leaning on a cane, leg swollen and hurting, and see a young, healthy person come out with a big smile on their face like they have won the lottery. Or trying to get a parking spot near the door, and finding an able bodied young man has taken the last one, and you have to find another far away, and you can hardly walk or stand. I bet the nay sayers would change their tunes in a hurry. People need better understanding of the disabled. Some of us are lucky to recover, and be able to walk, but ma

Robert Ponce
Robert Ponce2 years ago

I must have missed something. Since when, is helping (the less fortunate) such a bad and fiscally prohibitive thing to do for your neighbor? The very book "T" party lovers and the GOP espouse as their own, demands yhou help others. "This, it says, is pleasing to the Lord!" I know those conservative bible lovers may not have even read pst the "Begot's, let alone Jesus famous Sermon on the mount. And worse yet, Republicans (conveniently) have never read the part of Moses Law given to him By THEIR Conservative God, where it commands that every 50 years (The Jubilee Year) any who fell into slavery, debt, lost their home, property etc., where to be set free and given a pardon so they could start fresh. How loving is that? Do these "Conservatives" today practice this? NO THEY DON'T. But they will report you to Trans Union and the other hound dogs. One last piece of Biblical advise, admonition or whaever: "The same amount of mercy you extend to others will be the same amount given you."

Robert Ponce
Robert Ponce2 years ago

@jacobr as always, pointing a finger to place blame, is not fact. By placing blame on Obama, you mention "To be fair." This country was not founded without cooperation from the society that birthed it. All 13 Original states pitched in so all could benefit. Why not mention how the GOP since its inception (1848 or so) rallied for the wealthy and opposed laws that benefited the majority. Yeserday was the birthday of James Buchanan (15th Presdident). One of several no good Presidents. The Union was in shambles & disarray over slavery and other issues. And true to his conservative ways, Buchanan wanted nothing done about it (Sounds like the 112/113 Congress). The GOP (as the years passed) has becom numbed to the peoples needs. When they (GOP) talk about "We The People" they are thinking about the 1%. Not the lower 99. They don't care about you, me or any other Main Street Joe out here. These are not sujective opinions we're talking about here. The Great State of MI just got thrown back to pre-1850's on account SCOTUS, like James Buichanan, wants MI to refuse skin colors not approved by them. What's wrong with all these people? Channel 2 News in Charleston (yesterday) reported Georgia's Governor signing a new gun law permitting guns be admitted at your favorite Bar AND ... get this....INTO GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. While, it seems to me, some on the Hill are constantly creating "disabilites" for the plebs, others are trying to pull the other way and help enf

Jacob Ross
Jacob Ross2 years ago

It has been proved that the "Americans with Disabilities Act" has fallen prey to very widespread fraud since Obama took office and the "great recession" set in..

In fairness, it has not been his fault alone, but he and the Democrats appear to be content to let it happen.

20/20 had an episode just this week exposing people who claim disability while being anything but disabled.

And we need look no further than the myriad of lawyers that advertise their "disability claim" services, supported by a myriad of "doctors" who will declare you disabled for 30 pieces of silver.

As with most government schemes - another admirable idea costs taxpayers unnecessary millions, perhaps billions, thanks to government corruption and incompetence.

Colin Hope
Colin Hope2 years ago

Thank you!!

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa2 years ago

Thank you