ADA: Past, Present, & Future Imperfect

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life -- to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 -- the ADA is an "equal opportunity" law for people with disabilities.

To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.

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Historically one of the most marginalized groups in history have been those with disabilities. Societies have deemed them either unworthy of life or have seen them as God’s punishment for bad deeds. Disability has almost always been misunderstood. It was the communal fear of persons who were different. And as communities tend to do, when something is out of the ordinary—it is identified or characterized as evil.

Those who were different—those who lived with physical or mental disabilities—were relegated to the margins of society. At times they were denounced as witches, or thought to be in league with Satan. Invariably, they were merely persons living with a physical difference or some form of mental health issue. These ignorant meanderings led them to be ostracized by the mainstream. They were made to live on the fringes of society.

As society developed and modernized, we became more educated. At some point society thought it had become enlightened by no longer denouncing the disabled as witches or maleficent beings, and instead simply warehousing them. Sadly here people with disabilities were mostly neglected, abused, and ill-used. The horror that was Willowbrook, came to light in 1965 when Senator Robert Kennedy paid an unannounced visit to this institution that housed 6,200 residents in a place meant for 4000. The dehumanizing and abusive conditions drew national attention and became a key moment in disability rights history through a class action lawsuit that won increased protections for people with developmental disabilities.

Luckily, the United States was going through a societal upheaval in the late 60s through the 70s and 80s and the Civil Rights movement. Fortunately, some of the more outspoken disability advocates just happened to be disabled WW2 veterans who graced the halls of congress. They, along with the national disability movements, worked tirelessly to create the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What the ADA does is acknowledge that those who live with disabilities are viable and productive members of society. They are ENTITLED to be a part of our society. They are ENTITLED to access life’s activities—be it employment, education and recreation. They are ENTITLED to the simplest of life’s realities—using a public bathroom when needed, eating at a restaurant, and employing public transportation to go wherever they so desire.

The ADA is one of the few laws that could actually be called a success in our society. It changed the national landscape not simply for persons with disabilities, but for society as a whole. Our world broadened. Our society looked for the first time from within itself, and had to come to terms with those that it had marginalized for eons.

Unfortunately, the ADA, and other laws that support those living with disabilities have come under attack. Whether it is the new “need to work” laws surrounding Medicaid, the cutting back of funding for special education, or the lessening of responsibility of business owners when it comes to ADA compliance, there are some in our society who value business over people.

There is a bill that has passed the House that would allow business owners that are not in ADA compliance 120 days from notification to rectify the issue before they can be sued. The Bill stems from the sad reality that there are a handful of vulture lawyers who seek out small businesses that are just “out of compliance” with the ADA to sue and make a quick buck. The insurance companies of course settle out of court, but the small business owners are hurt by these lawsuits.

 Over 200 civil rights and disability advocate organizations have come out against the bill. They do acknowledge that there are bad-faith attorneys. But—the way to handle these lawyers is through the Bar and/or losing their license to practice, not by changing the ADA itself. You do not punish the entire disability community because of some peripheral persons, or a few bad actors. You also do not completely change the law so that the protected class is actually harmed by the reevaluation.

Not only are civil rights groups furious about the lag in getting this issue fixed, but they are upset that it is now up to the individual to bring suit or notice the noncompliance before it is fixed. The question becomes: if the ADA is a federal law, and state and local governments need to comply with this law, why is the burden solely the responsibility of the individual and not the government to force businesses to live up to their obligations under the ADA?

The issue actually comes down to the fact that according to the Bill, businesses would not even have to comply with the ADA unless someone brings suit and then they would be given time to fix it. This may sound fair to the average person, but the reality may be that businesses would choose to hedge their bets and not comply with the ADA until someone notices or says something to them about their noncompliance. This represents a dangerous step back for those with developmental disabilities and their rights to the same access afforded to able-bodied people. The arc of justice has, and should continue to, move towards complete and equal access for all; not access after officially notifying and then patiently waiting to be granted the access you were always entitled to. Able-bodied people don’t have to wait 120 days to enter a restaurant. Neither should those with disabilities.

There are many issues facing the disability community of late. Rights are coming under attack. It is important to stay abreast of the changes in Congress to ensure that the future is bright and accessible.

It is important to know your rights and know how to access your rights. Meanwhile, if you do believe that you are a victim of discrimination it is important to know where to find redress:

Americans With Disability Federal Government Home Page

ADA Department of Labor

Department of Justice Responsibilities

Videos about the ADA

File an ADA complaint with the Justice Department

Office of Civil Rights Enforcement at the Department of Education

Overview education rights

New York State Department of Human Rights

New York City Division of Human Rights

Workplace Fairness Complaint New York

Elise, an award-winning blogger, writes about the practical aspects of raising autistic children at her blog Raising Asperger’s Kids, She writes under the pen-name Elise Ronan, to protect her sons’ privacy, and has permission from them to tell their story.

Everything Elise writes about raising autistic children can be applied to any disability, invisible or even physical. There is information about creating your child’s support village, and practical information grouped by age. These direct pages can be found on the sidebar on her blog page. She is open to answering questions about her writings and helping other parents where she can. You can reach her at

Elise also writes a book review blog at Journaling on Paper,  She reviews different genres from memoirs, to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, space operas, historical fiction, and more. She also explores the use of language, and its effects.