Americans with Disabilities – A Historical Perspective

26 Aug 2020

The American Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, but the Act’s roots date back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin and other characteristics illegal. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations.  

Later laws like the Voting rights Act of 1965, the Civil Right Act of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 further prohibit discrimination. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically addresses discrimination against people with disabilities and was the precursor to the 1990 ADA Act.

The origins of the American with Disabilities Act can be traced back to the National Council on Disability (NCD) that recommended enactment of what became the ADA.

In 1986 the council published “Toward Independence: An assessment of federal laws and programs affecting persons with disabilities” which became the guiding principles to the 1990 ADA Act and what many consider “a watershed public policy.” 

A Pathway for People with Disabilities

The ADA provided a pathway for people with disabilities to achieve equal opportunity, participation and self-sufficiency.  The Act was a monumental step for society to embrace and accommodate those with disabilities. While the passage of the act was not a foregone conclusion the coordination and collaboration across political lines was heralded as a success and a giant leap forward in changing the perception of people with disabilities in this country.

The 1990 ADA Act defined “public accommodations” as hotels, restaurants, retail, government buildings,  transportation, parks, etc. It mandated accommodations for people with disabilities like elevators, ramp, hand holds and wider doorways.

The Act was instrumental in creating a more accommodating physical world and allowed people with disabilities to more easily navigate their way around in society. 

Before Digital

The ADA was signed into law before the explosion of the Internet, leaving a gray area around the application of the law and ‘public accommodations” as it pertains to the digital world. While the law did not specifically call out the Internet, the definition of “public accommodations” has been increasingly interpreted by the courts to apply to digital apps and websites. 

Digital Organizing Bodies

The 3WC (World Wide Web Consortium) created a set of guidelines called the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) in 2008 that were adopted as the ISO standard of digital accessibility.  The WCAG 2.0 was later updated in 2018 with the WCAG 2.1. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act was updated in Section 508 in 2017 with stricter guidelines as it pertains to government contractors The WCAG Guidelines have become standard which the courts have been using to determine if companies are providing the proper accommodations on their websites, the same way the ADA Act mandates for physical environments.

The WCAG guidelines provided a framework for digital accessibility that has made its way through the courts. Companies like Domino’s, Winn-Dixie, the San Francisco 49ers, Burger King and hundreds more have been sued for not providing proper accommodations for people with disabilities on their website and app.

There have been hundreds of lawsuits and thousands of demand letters forcing companies to comply with the standard of digital accessibility set by the WCAG. 

While further legislation has not yet been passed to include digital accommodations in the ADA Act itself, the courts have been very clear that companies’ websites also count as public accommodations in the eyes of the law. 

Doing the Right Thing

Yes, it is the right thing to do!

The ADA Act was instrumental in mandating that companies provide accommodations for those in our society with disabilities, but more importantly it helped transform attitudes about people with disabilities. 

While some companies like Domino’s aggressively defended their lack of accommodations on their app and websites, the Supreme Court saw it differently and denied a petition in October 2019, leaving in place a lower court’s decision.

The message is clear that companies need to start providing digital accommodations the same way they have been providing physical accommodations.

Numbers You Can’t Ignore

The numbers cannot be ignored. According to the 2010 Census, one in five Americans have some kind of disability. Whether it is hearing loss, visual impairment, or a cognitive disorder, almost 20 percent of our society needs some form of accommodation to navigate their physical, and now digital environments. 

The American Institutes for Research estimate that people with disabilities represent nearly $500 billion in discretionary income.  With the massive growth of digital commerce and a global pandemic, people with disabilities are increasingly dependent on the digital world.

Not only is it the right thing for companies to provide digital accommodations, it’s also good business.