The Americans With Disabilities Act Remains Crucial In The Fight Against Ableism 29 Years Later
Amy Gaeta & Haley Moss
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) continues to empower disabled people to achieve social, educational, and academic growth. By expressly prohibiting disability discrimination, disabled people’s civil rights to access and accommodations in most public and private places have been protected for the past 29 years. However, there are many critics of the ADA, some going as far to claim the law should be repealed; we saw this most recently with Barry Fagin’s op-ed (November 14, 2019) published in a Colorado newspaper.
Fagin’s opinion piece, “The ADA is Terrible Law and Should be Repealed,” is based on an incorrect assumption that the ADA unfairly burdens business owners and employers because the law requires them to provide reasonable accommodations to make their businesses accessible. Fagin argues accommodations can require a substantial amount of time, money, and labor. As such, failure to comply with the ADA would turn cities, employers, and business owners into “unwitting criminals” and result in “frivolous lawsuits.” Fagin ultimately suggests the federal government should not even sponsor the ADA, because “it is not the job of the national government to compel kindness.” Ensuring civil rights for people with disabilities is not and should not be a charitable gift dependent on public kindness and a higher morality.
Fagin’s criticisms are nothing new. This type of anti ADA “reasoning” is a byproduct of the long-standing suppression of disabled people’s perspectives in America. Ableism – the prejudices and discrimination against disabled people – is an entirely new concept to many people. Ableism is more than a set of negative attitudes and stereotypes about disabled people, but is also about how the world has largely not been designed for disabled bodies, thus barring our access to spaces and opportunities. For example, it is interesting to note that a newspaper published an opinion piece by a non-disabled person about a disability civil rights law includes no citations from legal sources or disabled people.
So, What Exactly *Is* The ADA?
Critics of the ADA often do not know the historical need and background of the law. The ADA was signed into law by former President H.W. Bush in 1990 with bipartisan support. The Act was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. It wasn’t until 9 years later that the first disability ciivl rights law was passed – The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination in programs and activities that received federal financial assistance or within federal agencies or employment. We continue to apply Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act regarding nondiscrimination. The first form of IDEA was passed shortly following the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA followed and expanded upon the Rehabilitation Act nearly 17 years later – and 26 years the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – by applying civil rights protection for people with disabilities in the public and private spheres.
The ADA is divided into five titles: (1) employment, (2) nondiscrimination in state and local government services, (3) public accommodations and accessibility, (4) telecommunications, and (5) further information about disability definitions and information not explicitly covered within the other four titles. Ambiguities within the ADA are interpreted and clarified by state and federal courts; courts can determine what may or may not be a reasonable accommodation or fits within the confines of the ADA on a case-by-case basis.
Despite its many successes, the ADA, like any law, is not perfect. For one, religious institutions are excused from providing public accommodations. More shocking is that under Title I of the ADA, employment protection does not apply to private businesses, private employers, and state and local government agencies that employ less than 15 people. Others have criticized the ADA for failing to account for how standardized work week schedules can pose challenges to disabled people. Still, criticism of the revisions includes failure to acknowledge the challenges that a standard work week schedule poses to those with disabilities. Further, a recent law review showed how there’s ambiguity around what is considered a mandatory workplace accommodations, such as if reassignment is something we can demand as our right. Disability justice is far from being achieved by the ADA.
Both of us were born after the passage of the ADA and are two young people with disabilities who understand and expect that disability rights are civil rights. We acknowledge the difficult history that our disabled predecessors and elders endured leading up to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the ADA. And it’s heartbreaking and difficult to imagine a world where disability rights are constantly under attack and in need of defending. We spoke to a few disabled people about the importance of this law on their lives.
The Continued Need for the ADA – 29 Years Later
- The ADA affirms that access is a civil right
After the passage of the ADA and 2008 amendments to the Act, disabled people continue to assert the need for the law’s promise of equal opportunity and access – after all, inaccessibility is exclusion in specific environments or spaces. When our friend Atta Zahedi, began his undergraduate degree at the University of California Riverside in 2013, he quickly learned the “brand new” engineering building on campus did not have accessible doors. One of Zahedi’s favorite professors encouraged him to exercise his right to access, having “ADA requirements put in posthaste.” The fact that an engineering building for advanced research, constructed only a few years before Zahedi’s arrival, failed to consider disabled people speaks to the ongoing invisibility of disabled people. One of the many problems of treating access as a public good is that to receive kindness, you must first be recognized as existing. The ADA recognizes our existence and equal rights as an obligation so that we can demand our right to equal access.
- The ADA gives disabled people a legal platform to advocate for fair treatment
While self-advocacy is an important and empowering skill, it is the responsibility of our government to protect people’s rights and enforce legislation. When large corporations and organizations systematically exclude groups of marginalized folks, those groups need protection under the law. Lily Calman, was a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wa, who has an auditory processing disorder, shared how the ADA made it possible for her to successfully complete college because her disability status mandated that professors provide her accommodations; they refused prior to her diagnosis. Calman told us that she “fought for years for the legal documentation” because her professors didn’t believe she had a disability and would refuse to accommodate, their argument being she was “trying to cheat in such an ‘academically rigorous’ institution.” To the contrary, accommodations are not a way to get ahead or cheat, but rather, to level the playing field compared to nondisabled peers. If we asked somebody wearing glasses to complete daily tasks without glasses or contacts, they would unnecessarily struggle – receiving a reasonable accommodation for a disability is no different.
- The ADA promotes the success of disabled people and the transformation into a more accessible country.
Requiring access and accommodations is far from an excessive or even “villainous” demand as it ultimately promotes access and equal opportunity across spaces and social groups. For instance, Grace Lapointe, a writer with cerebral palsy, reflected on her elementary school experience in Fall River, Massachusetts: the ADA mandated access and accommodations for everyone, “not just for people who got into special, private schools,” she explained. Lapointe further recalled that “during her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton mentioned meeting with disabled children in the neighboring city of New Bedford in the 1970s who didn’t attend schools because they were inaccessible.” The takeaway here is that changes made under the ADA lay the foundation for future generations as well and reduce social categories, such as class, from determining one’s capacity to participate in public institutions.
The Future of the ADA
The necessity of the ADA continues to persist in our culture as ableism takes on diverse forms – whether it is systemic, intentional, subconscious, malicious or benevolent. If counted as a minority group, the 40.7 million disabled people in America, would comprise the largest minority in the U.S. This comes alongside continued amounts of neurodivergent and mentally ill people who open up about their diagnoses and disabilities. The ADA covers conditions that limit at least one major life activity; the definition remains inclusive and has been defined accordingly since the law’s inception.
When we think about the future, we hope to see a more accessible, protective, and inclusive society. Inclusion and accessibility needs to expand to accommodate all kinds of disabilities and their corresponding support needs. Accommodation and accessibility is not a means to an end in the legal system, but rather, a way to improve society in ways that benefit all, beginning with disabled people – as we’ve learned, the curb-cut effect proves that accessible design with accommodations in mind begins with ensuring disabled people are able to participate meaningfully in communities everywhere.
Accessibility is always ripe for improvement across different spaces and scenarios; places where disabled people often weren’t included, such as civic engagement and events, must consider accessibility needs in order to become more inclusive – text translation, sensory-friendly environments, subtitles on video presentations, food options, to name a few, are some of the many ways to further increase accessibility in places with growing numbers of people who were previously excluded from powerful, privilege-filled spaces.
Improving the ADA for the next generation needs to continue as an ongoing collaboration between policymakers, politicians, self-advocates, and communities. It is up to us as a society to call people in for improvement while also holding those who exclude accountable for their discriminatory actions. Ableism will persist unless the future of the ADA continues to include the perspectives of more disabled people. For now, we celebrate the victories we’ve achieved with the ADA in its current and evolving form – and look forward to dismantling ableism because the best has yet to come in the disability rights movement. For the next 30 years, our hope and ambition is that opinion pieces such as Fagin’s on the “terrible” ADA law will be a thing of the past. The proper implementation of the ADA requires that all people understand its value and respond accordingly. The ADA is one of the most valuable tools we have in the ongoing fight against ableism.
Amy Gaeta is an activist and Ph.D. candidate in the Literary Studies and Visual Cultures (doctoral minor) programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work uses feminist technoscience and disability studies to theorize the relationship between technology, virtuality, and the category of the human in the 21st century. Amy uses her academic training in her efforts to promote social justice and mend the gap between activism and academia.
Haley Moss is an attorney, author, artist, and autistic self-advocate based in Miami, Florida. She went viral earlier this year for becoming Florida’s first openly autistic attorney. Haley hopes that her advocacy projects will empower other autistic and disabled people while she continues working towards pushing greater public acceptance and understanding of disability inclusion and neurodiversity.
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