A Fresh Look At An Old New Law: The Americans With Disabilities Act
(This is the first in a series on the meaning and relevance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it approaches its third decade).
The 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is less than a year away. The landmark civil rights law for people with disabilities was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990, amid pride and high hopes in the disability community, and businesses’ misgivings about what they worried would be a well-meaning but vague and costly law. Since then, ADA anniversaries have become a kind of national holiday for the disability community. It’s a popular time of year for disability organizations to hold major public events, for editorial pages to reaffirm basic fairness towards disabled people, and for disabled activists and writers to discuss what the ADA meant when it passed, and what it means today.
Based on what disabled people have talked about over the last few ADA anniversaries, the disability community will celebrate the 30th by noting improved accessibility, exasperation over barriers that still remain and even multiply, and above all a more empowered mindset among the “ADA Generation” of disabled people who grew up after 1990. At the same time, there will probably also be a good deal of nostalgia for what disabled people hoped the ADA would be, along with a feeling of unfulfilled potential and even dissatisfaction with what the law has yet to accomplish.
If the ADA was a person, it would be a full adult, no longer a newborn. Yet, businesses and employers still often talk as if they’ve just heard about it, and beg for more time and grace periods to comply. The Americans with Disabilities Act may be the oldest “new law” in American legal history. In one sense it’s ridiculous to treat a nearly 30 year old law as something businesses still need to adjust to. On the other hand, if the law is still “new” to so many people, maybe there’s fresh chance to get full implementation right. The coming anniversary is a good time to start this process by asking some probing questions:
Is the Americans with Disabilities Act still a revolutionary civil rights law for a previously neglected and misunderstood population? Or, is it the quintessential “unfunded mandate” and act of official virtue signaling … a bipartisan “good deed” without true conviction or resources to make it real?
Have retail businesses, employers, the nonprofit world, and local government changed their thinking about the ADA in the last 30 years? Is there more “support” for it, but less actual compliance?
Does the ADA truly protect all people with all kinds of disabilities? Or, were there biases and compromises baked into the law that can no longer be justified?
Do the facts, arguments, and principles that structure the ADA still work today, and can they be improved in ways that actually strengthen the law’s power to create equal access and opportunity?
There are three compelling reasons why now is a good time to reexamine the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- The core ideas of the ADA are more familiar than they were in 1990, but they sometimes feel out of date. Concepts like “reasonable accommodation,” “undue burden,” and “accessible” were originally meant to be flexible, for good reasons. But they often feel inadequate to the higher expectations of a new generation of disabled people.
- Some of the most powerful aspects of the ADA today were barely thought of when it passed. For instance, the 1999 Olmstead Supreme Court decision continues to revolutionize long term care, while website accessibility looks to be the barrier removal battlefield of the future.
- The disability rights movement that crafted the ADA pushed hard for its passage, mostly moved on to other goals, leaving the ADA vulnerable both to neglect and formal attack. In the 1990s, disability rights organizations like ADAPT and the National Council on Independent Living shifted emphasis from accessible transportation and passing the ADA, to expanding long term home care and helping disabled people get out of nursing homes and institutions. This was a logical choice at the time. However, each new Congress seems to include a new bill to weaken the ADA’s accessibility mandates. Playing defense has worked so far, but that’s no guarantee that it will continue to work in future Congresses.
Over the next several weeks, we will revisit these and other questions about of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will ask how the law’s meaning and importance have changed, and how everyone touched by the law can help fulfill its original promise in the years ahead.