Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, its history dates back to February 1986. Then, the National Council on Disability published a report titled, “Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities – With Legislative Recommendations.”
As indicated by the title, the report was aimed at exploring existing federal programs accommodating those with disabilities, and recommending ways to further aid the community. Through the report, it was discovered that about two-thirds of disabled people of working age didn’t receive any sort of public assistance income, that federal programs overemphasized income support over initiatives for actual equality, and that federal programs promoting private sector efforts toward equal opportunities should be emphasized.
A follow-up report, titled “On the Threshold of Independence,” was published almost two years later. While the previous report merely suggested an all-encompassing federal law to equal treatment for the disabled, this report offered a mock-up of that legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As drafted by the NCD, the ADA defined key terms relating to the disabled, as well as forms of discrimination prohibited under it, and a guide to fair housing standards. Guidelines for building and vehicle accessibility were also written into the draft.
Following publication of the second NCD report, the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities was established by U.S. Rep. Major Owens from Brooklyn. Owens, who went from working as a librarian to serving 24 years in the House of Representatives, was a champion of inclusion, and knew how to frame the ADA in order to sell it.
“The strategy was to link it to civil rights,” said Owens in a 1998 interview with Mouth magazine’s Josie Byzek. “It was the best route to get folks to understand segregation fast. Civil rights and women’s rights had a clear history. Making the transition to rights for people with disabilities became easier because we had the history of the other two.” Owens co-chaired the task force along with Justin Dart, Jr., an activist regarded as the “Godfather of the ADA.”
The first actual draft of the ADA was actually drafted in Congress by Connecticut Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, a Republican who later served as governor. Weicker, the parent of a disabled child, focused much of his Congressional career on improving conditions for disabled persons, particularly the investigation of state-run facilities accused of abusing mentally disabled patients. Weicker worked with Rep. Tony Coelho, a Democrat from California living with epilepsy. Coelho became the primary sponsor of the bill. Unfortunately, before Weicker could see his efforts come to fruition, he lost his seat to Joseph Lieberman.
Over the next two years, the ADA was revised in the Senate, shepherded by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa. The bill passed the Senate by a huge margin (76-8), then the House the following year. It was summarily signed by Bush. At the ceremony, Harkin delivered part of his introductory speech in sign language.
The ADA, in its current form, covers a wide range of mental and physical conditions, including blindness, deafness, lack of physical mobility, cerebral palsy, autism, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, HIV, depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Its protections are enforced by multiple bodies. Title I of the law covers employment, and is under the jurisdiction of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals on the basis of a disability.
Title II of the law covers public entities at the local and state levels and prohibits discrimination from any and all programs offered by them (such as school districts and municipal governments). Public transportation is also covered under this section of the law, which is enforced by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
The DOJ also oversees regulation of Title III of the ADA, prohibiting discrimination at commercial facilities and places of public accommodation (including hotels, inns, stores, and dining establishments). Exceptions to this title are granted to private clubs and religious organizations. Title III is most concerned with providing accessible entrances and exits to both existing facilities and newly constructed places.
Title IV covers telecommunications, and is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. The purpose of this regulation is to ensure all telecommunications companies in the U.S. offer services for users with disabilities, such as telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD).
Finally, Title V covers miscellaneous provisions, including the prohibition of any coercion or retaliation against those exercising their rights under the ADA.
While the ADA has seen its share of criticisms—for instance, employers who claim its regulations are too expensive to enact, or that it enables those who seek to exploit the system—the law is largely seen as a benefit to the millions of disabled persons in the United States and a key piece of civil rights law.