Thirty years ago, on June 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The sweeping legislation expanded the civil rights protections of people with disabilities beyond federally funded spaces. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice states the act “guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.”

The Road To Change

The 1990 law was the culmination of years of fighting for change. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act became law. Focusing on federal grants for vocational rehabilitation, the act included Section 504. This section served as a civil rights law, ensuring that federally funded spaces could not discriminate on the basis of ability. It also forced these spaces to be accessible to people with disabilities, meaning the implementation of ramps and other accessibility tools. 

However, action was not swift. Two presidential administrations delayed the law, as many federally funded institutions feared the high costs of retrofitting their spaces for accessibility. Through this inaction emerged several disability advocacy groups, determined to see the law realized.

Sitting-In, Not Standing Down

In 1970, Judith Heumann founded Disabled in Action. Having just won a legal battle with the New York City Board of Education, which denied her a teaching license due to her use of a wheelchair, Heumann and the group started staging sit-ins in response to the stalling of the law. Soon the group began organizing sit-ins in various US cities, including the nation’s capital. 

On April 5, 1977, the activists decided that time was up. Though the law had passed, its implementation had not even begun. Activists in 10 US cities staged the 504 sit-in, with Heumann beginning the protests in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco. This sit-in lasted 28 days, with over 150 people refusing to leave the building. On April 28 of the same year, the U.S. Secretary of the department signed Section 504. 

The ADA would not be here without the work of activists like Judith Heumann. And the world is better for it. The law protects disabled people in many fields, and allows those with physical disabilities greater access to public life. Likewise, it also protects individuals with psychological disorders from wrongful termination in the workforce.

Judith Heumann. Photo via The New York Times.

The Battle Continues

Despite this, thirty years later, challenges still remain. Through accessibility legislation, disabled people are largely more “visible”. However, the public attitude towards disability remains largely unchanged. Employers with under 15 employees are not forced to make accessibility changes to their premises, and older buildings that are difficult to change are also not required to retrofit. It remains clear that the battle for accommodation and equality has not yet ceased. 

As COVID-19 deals blows to the economy, the persistent bias against disability is visible. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in June of this year, unemployment for individuals with disabilities jumped to 16.5%. For able bodied individuals, that number was just 11%. Discrimination, though now forcibly covert, continues in this country.

Ask questions to your employers and schools about accessibility. Demand action, be vigilant, and speak up.

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