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The Story Behind the ADA

Published by Zoe Campbell on

Exactly 29 years ago today, on July 26th, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. As the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities, the ADA was made possible by people with disabilities on the forefront who challenged and fought against the discrimination that they faced.

Historically, developmental and physical disabilities were viewed as something to fear or ridicule. People with disabilities were often excluded from opportunities and faced countless injustices. It wasn’t until 1973 that a law was passed that outlawed discrimination on the basis of disability by the recipients of federal funds. This law, Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, was the first time that the law recognized that the problems that people with disabilities faced in their daily lives, such as a lack of employment and unfair treatment, were not a consequence of their disability, but instead a consequence of prejudices and assumptions.

Following the passage of Section 504 in 1973, disability advocates fought hard to safeguard the legislation and to continue expanding protections for people with disabilities. An influential 1979 Supreme Court case, Southeastern Community College v. Davis, was a substantial setback in the fight for equal treatment. When a hearing-impaired woman was denied admission to a nursing program due to her disability, the court ruled that the school had the right to do so because she was unable to fulfill the requirements of the program. Thankfully, disability advocates continued to fight, and there were numerous Supreme Court victories for the community following the Southeastern Community College v. Davis case.

Getting the ADA signed into law took years of hard work and dedication. In order to raise awareness about the bill, advocates launched an initiative entitled “discrimination diaries,” where people with disabilities documented the daily occurrences of discrimination and inaccessibility in their lives. In 1988, witnesses with a wide range of different disabilities testified at a Congressional hearing about the various barriers that they faced. Following the actions of the brave individuals who spoke up, members of Congress pledged to make a civil rights bill their top priority. 

Two years of relentless edits to the bill ensued, until it was finally signed into law on July 26th, 1990. As an organization that serves people of all abilities, we are grateful that a law exists offering protection against discrimination and inaccessibility to our population. Despite the fact that 29 years have passed, the ADA continues to be incredibly valuable today!

President George H.W. Bush signing the ADA into law on this day in 1990.
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