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The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Big Thank You to the Honorable George H.W. Bush

Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” President George H.W. Bush selected these final words to memorialize the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

The Americans with Disabilities Act: An Overview

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush, joined by thousands of disabled spectators and their families, proudly signed the ADA into law. This Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, was passed with overwhelming support of both houses of Congress. The ADA provides anti-discriminatory protections to individuals with disabilities.

Equality in the American pursuit of happiness has evolved into an insatiable creature – a mellifluent organism, morphing and changing, building upon itself to expand its reach. The American people have successfully quashed such primitive ideas as the inferiority of slaves, minority communities, women, and – only recently – individuals with disabilities.

Interestingly, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covered race, color, religion, gender, and national origin, the one disadvantaged group that could capture a simultaneous number of the targeted protected classes, was ultimately forgotten. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act codified some efforts to thwart disability discrimination. Then, the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act and other legislative measures were intermittently taken – but it was not until 1990 that every disabled individual finally won their place in an equal America. 

Purpose

Through the continuation of a long history of civil rights efforts, the ADA brought individuals with disabilities to the forefront of the American fight for equality. Protection from inequality and social injustice was expanded to include all men, all women, all races, all nationalities, and finally, all abilities. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established protections for disabled individuals in countless aspects of their lives. The ADA established the framework for governments, employers, and providers of public services with guidelines as to the acceptable recognition of and accommodations for the needs of the disabled. It was designed to promote meaningful access to life for those with disabilities.

Importance

Before President Bush signed the bill into law, disabled individuals experienced significant discrimination. Established law was pieced together like a quilt missing patches – leaving many disabled individuals uncovered and left out in the cold. Being deprived of employment, access to resources, buildings, and social settings was an all too common reality for this group.

Application

The ADA protects individuals with qualified disabilities. Its definition resembles the targets of the Social Security Administration. Individuals with qualified disabilities are defined as individuals with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The individual must have a record of such disability, and be discriminated against for a real or perceived, long-term disability in order to be protected under this law. The list of qualifying disabilities under the ADA is quite broad and indefinite; thus, encompassing a great number of individuals with needs outside the perceived social norms.

Benefits

The ADA requires businesses to provide employees and customers with equal access to their establishments – and recent efforts are targeting access to technological barriers as well. Not only do these laws offer individuals with disabilities access to resources and services that able-bodied individuals enjoy, it also increases the opportunity for businesses to benefit from the added customer and employment pool.

Many disabled individuals desire to enter the workforce. Employers lacking accessibility are losing out on a group of potential employees that provide a unique perspective, hard work ethic, and a sense of loyalty to those that provide them with opportunities.  “Accommodations” is a scary word to employers – it has become synonymous with cost. However, many accommodations require little to no cost to the employer; and even if there are associated costs, tax breaks and state vocational rehabilitation services are available to mitigate those expenditures.

Pitfalls

The current effect of the ADA and its supplements provide an avenue for legal action – actions that result, not always as a desire for businesses to alter their locations for the benefit of those with disabilities, but instead promotes hostilities toward those with disabilities and their seemingly monetary motives. This result sets back the decades of work towards disability equality and fuels further discrimination, often out of rebellious spite. (See H.B. 620 below)

The primary difficulty for businesses to comply is the indefinite scope of what accessibility really means. With the boundless number of qualifying disabilities, how can an establishment truly grasp what is needed to provide meaningful access to all individuals – each individual with a disability requires their own version of accessibility. Educating businesses on the discovered barriers of access is a great step towards progress.

Additions, Amendments & More

ADAAA & IDEA

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) worked together to help disabled students gain access to a free appropriate public education. When a disabled child does not qualify for IDEA, the child may qualify for slightly different protections under Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Plan of 1973 (a 504 plan).

The ADAAA also clarifies specific behaviors and questions for employers that are permitted or unacceptable. Generally, if a person with a qualifying disability is capable of performing the job, with or without accommodations, they are protected. Employers may not inquire about intellectual disabilities, with the exception of employees that are part of a federal affirmative action scheme. Employees requesting accommodations clearly need to disclose certain parts of their disability relevant to the accommodation needed, but there are additional, required safeguards that employers must take to protect this information.

More recently, other laws and legislative guidance have been established. Additionally, unthought-of areas of disability discrimination have been under attack. Particularly, for those with low/no vision or hearing difficulties, access to internet content can be difficult or impossible. For more reading on this topic, see our prior blog post.

H.B. 620

House Bill 620 is also known as the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. Misleadingly named, the proposed law focuses on educating the discriminating party. The claimed purpose is to limit disability discrimination suits to genuine and substantive claims – not the so-called “drive-by lawsuits” bogging down the court system in states like California (where there is an automatic statutory minimum on damages for winning such cases).

While the bill passed in the House early in 2018, senatorial efforts – led by Sen. Tammy Duckworth – have aggressively positioned the Senate to filibuster any attempts to move such a bill any further. While providing businesses with a warning and opportunity to right wrongs is a logical and beneficial step, concerns with businesses opting to wait for their warning, rather than being proactive, are raised. The key will be to find a middle ground weighing the rights of procrastinating businesses against those of disabled individuals that have been discriminated against.

An Eye on the Horizon

A big thank you from the disability community goes out to President George H.W. Bush as we remember the effort and success of actors during his presidential term. The ADA was a pioneering piece of legislation – one that continues to grow and improve. The fight for disability inclusion, for equality, for the rights of individuals with disabilities, began instantaneously with President Bush’s act of signing the ADA into law.

Every day, our society becomes a little more informed, a little more open to norms unlike its own. Normal is relative – as our society continues to blend together, the inclusion of those outside the current norm becomes the new norm. The ADA provides a push towards that goal. And despite the recent attempts of the House to undermine the ADA, President Bush’s greatest domestic achievement remains intact.

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