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Happy Birthday ADA

In a scene described as having “the fervor of a civil rights rally of the 1960s” supporters of the Americans with Disabilities Act climb the steps of the Capitol without their walkers, crutches and wheelchairs on Mar 12, 1990. Photo by Terry Ashe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The Americans with Disabilities Act is 23 years old today. This is the law aimed at eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities and ensuring equal opportunity for them “in employment … government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation,” as described on the website of the Department of Justice.

Sponsored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and and signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the ADA was the result of years of debate over whether it would do as much harm as it would good, because of the new requirements it placed on governments, employers and people who own airlines, bus companies, office buildings, stores, restaurants and any other facility someone with a disability might want to use. In other words, just about every place you can think of, other than private homes. Not long before it was enacted, several hundred people with disabilities showed up outside the U.S. Capitol building, and those who could, let go of their wheelchairs, walkers and crutches, and crawled or pulled themselves up the 100 steps, urging members of Congress to vote for the ADA. Those who couldn’t climb, yelled or held up signs.

The Los Angeles Times was on the scene and described the crowd of supporters:

“The demonstration at the West Front of the Capitol had some of the fervor of a civil rights rally of the 1960s as the demonstrators chanted slogans and sang songs to underscore their message to Congress.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) made the comparison, telling the crowd: “What we did for civil rights in the 1960s we forgot to do for people with disabilities.”

President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images

Despite lopsided votes for the law in the Senate and the House, it’s hardly been a settled issue since it first came into being. Over the past couple of decades, it has been subjected to significant amendments and ongoing arguments about whether and how it should be applied and interpreted. Just since 2006, the federal government and individual citizens have taken legal action against cruise lines, hotels, sheriff’s and fire departments, public school systems, colleges and local governments from one end of the country to the other, usually over the accommodations they provide to those with disabilities. Even the District of Columbia had to be legally coerced into providing accessible shelter for the homeless with disabilities. One of the prisons in the Pennsylvania State Correctional system was found in violation of the ADA for denying adequate services to inmates with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. In Arizona, the Phoenix International Raceway reached a settlement with the U.S. government only last month after a racing fan with disabilities filed a complaint that it didn’t provide accessible seating and parking.

Reading the scores of complaints filed by citizens, that were later investigated by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department — many of which resulted in settlements — creates an image of a living, breathing law, rather than a one-dimensional statute that rests in bound copies on a dusty shelf. It seems to be constantly changing; it’s been interpreted and re-interpreted to prevent discrimination and provide equal opportunity.

On one of these evenings when you get discouraged thinking about today’s gridlock in Washington, go to the Justice Department website for a list of ADA “Enforcement activities”, legal settlements reached to require changes made in physical structures or classroom teaching arrangements, for example. Even as we recognize how many of these accommodations had to be imposed on an employer or an institution, they are a reminder of how far we’ve come as a nation in the way we treat those who are differently abled.

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