An official website of the United States government

This 1990 disabilities law ushered in a new era (July 20)
July 20, 2020


In the House of Representatives, Representative Tony Coelho (D-California) led the movement, with Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) taking over after Coelho stepped down.

People with disabilities played a big role in getting the law enacted. Disability organizations documented personal stories of discrimination. People with disabilities and their advocacy groups testified before Congress. So did members of the legislative and executive branches of both the federal and state levels of the government.

Amendments to the ADA since its passage cover places like playgrounds, amusement parks, swimming pools and mini golf courses. The law compels companies to make medical diagnostic equipment — such as exam tables, dentist chairs, X-Ray machines — accessible to minimize the transfer distance between such furniture and someone in a wheelchair.

What led to the ADA and how it works

At times, progressive laws in the U.S. are passed by states — often referred to as laboratories of democracy — before the Congress considers them. At other times, as in the case of the disabilities laws, Congress passes narrow measures that first apply to federal government workers only. As such small experiments succeed, they boost the chances for broader legislation.

Before the ADA passed, the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 mandated that buildings designed and constructed by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in federally funded programs.

The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) granted children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education, in the least restrictive environment. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was extended in 1988 to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in that area.

But Capozzi says there were no protections against discrimination for people with disabilities in the private sector or guarantees that all state and local government buildings or programs would be made accessible.

The ADA — inspired by the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin — brought wider protections. “It’s not just a paper tiger,” Capozzi says of the ADA. “it’s both very comprehensive but also has a pretty vigorous enforcement mechanism.”

If anyone believes they have been discriminated against, they can file a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and, depending on state law, a complaint or lawsuit in the state. Guilty defendants typically must make an accommodation or rectify an employment issue and, in some cases, must pay penalties.

“The ADA is a dramatic renewal not only for those with disabilities but for all of us, because along with the precious privilege of being an American comes a sacred duty to ensure that every other American’s rights are also guaranteed,” Bush said at the signing ceremony.