with Disabilities Act (ADA) in Depth
from the Center for an Accessible Society
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with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most comprehensive federal
civil-rights statute protecting the rights of people with
disabilities. It affects access to employment; state and local
government programs and services; access to places of public
accommodation such as businesses, transportation, and non-profit
service providers; and telecommunications.
The scope of the ADA in addressing the barriers to participation
by people with disabilities in the mainstream of society is very
broad. The ADA's civil rights protections are parallel to those
that have previously been established by the federal government
for women and racial, ethnic and religious minorities.
"The ADA is
solely about 'equal opportunity', from its preamble to its final
provision: like other civil rights laws, the ADA prohibits
discrimination and mandates that Americans be accorded equality
in pursuing jobs, goods, services and other opportunities -- but
the ADA makes clear that equal treatment is not synonymous with
identical treatment, says Professor Robert Burgdorf Jr., one of
the drafters of the original bill that became the ADA.
"Letting every employee have an identical opportunity to use a
restroom located up a flight of stairs may be "identical"
treatment but it is hardly equal treatment for a worker who uses
"The ADA is a mandate for equality. Any person who's
discriminated against by an employer because of a real
disability -- or because the employer regards the person as
being disabled, whether they are or not -- should be entitled to
the law's protection. The focus of the Act was -- and should be
-- on eliminating employers' practices that make people
Progress at 10 years
Ten years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities
Ac in 1990, this landmark federal law has proved a remarkable
success, defying the gloom and doom predictions of many members
of Congress that the law, designed to open up American society
to its 54 million citizens with disabilities, would bankrupt the
economy. At the same time however, the law has not fully
delivered on its keys promises to eliminate discrimination
against people with disabilities in the workplace and in public
The ADA has profoundly changed how society views and
accommodates its citizens with disabilities. Universal design --
the practice of designing products, buildings and public spaces
and programs to be usable by the greatest number of people --
has helped create a society where curb cuts, ramps, lifts on
buses, and other access designs are increasingly common. In the
process, we have discovered that an accessible society is good
for everyone, not just people with disabilities.
Curb cuts designed for wheelchair users are also used by people
with baby carriages, delivery people, and people on skateboards
and roller blades. With the Baby Boom generation poised to enter
the population of seniors, the number of Americans needing
access and universal design will grow enormously.
The ADA has created a more inclusive climate where companies,
institutions, and organizations are reaching out far more often
to people with disabilities. Colleges and universities, for
example, now accommodate more people with disabilities than they
did before ADA, even though they have been obligated by law for
nearly 25 years to make their campus and classrooms accessible.
"Flood of Lawsuits" Never Materialized
When the ADA was before Congress, some members predicted a flood
of lawsuits that would bankrupt or at least overburden business.
One Congressional leader characterized the ADA a "disaster"
benefiting only "gold diggers" filing frivolous lawsuits.
Attempts continue to weaken the law through amendments.
Studies have shown, however, that businesses have adapted to the
ADA much more easily - and inexpensively - than the doomsayers
predicted. Some have even made money by making accommodations.
Law Professor Peter Blanck of the University of Iowa has studied
business compliance with the ADA, including Sears Roebuck and
many other large businesses, and found that compliance was often
as easy as raising or lowering a desk, installing a ramp, or
modifying a dress code. Another survey found that three-quarters
of all changes cost less than $100.
Moreover, the predicted flood of lawsuits proved to be
imaginary. Almost 90 percent of the cases brought before the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are thrown out. And only
about 650 lawsuits were filed in the ADA 's first five years - a
small number compared to 6 million businesses, 666,000 public
and private employers, and 80,000 units of state and local
governments that must comply. The American Bar Association
recently conducted a survey and learned that, of the cases that
actually go to court, 98 percent are decided in favor of the
defendants, usually businesses.
Supreme Court Decisions Thwart Intent of ADA
Many people believe that Supreme Court decisions involving the
ADA are impeding efforts to create a more accessible society.
Law Professor Robert Burgdorf has written, "Twelve years ago, as
I drafted the original version of the Americans with
Disabilities Act, I never dreamed that this landmark civil
rights law would become so widely misunderstood and my words so
badly misinterpreted, particularly by the body meant to protect
the very rights guaranteed by the law."
Despite tremendous strides forward, many people with
disabilities are dismayed that more progress has not come. In
1990, 70 percent of people with disabilities were unemployed,
and the figure remains the same today. Part of the problem, they
say, is the adverse court rulings. Another problem has been
contradictory federal policies that actually make it difficult
for people with disabilities to work. Under current Social
Security regulations, a person with a disability is allowed to
enroll in Medicare, but can earn only a few hundred dollars a
month. Earn more than the limit and you stand to lose all your
benefits. Likewise, federal and state regulations are still
biased in favor of nursing homes and institutional care
providers over personal attendant services at home ?? a policy
that dates to the 1960s when Medicare and Medicaid were created.
This policy forces many people to live in nursing homes instead
of at home, where they say they'd rather be in order to
participate in their communities and, for many, obtain
People With Disabilities Disenfranchised
Another significant problem that hasn't disappeared in the
decade since ADA was enacted is access to the voting booth. One
study shows that the voting rate among people with disabilities
is 20 percentage points less than non-disabled people, despite
state and federal laws, including the ADA, which require polling
places to accommodate disabled voters. The Federal Election
Commission has reported that more than 20,000 polling places
across the nation are inaccessible, depriving people with
disabilities of their fundamental right to vote.
Frequently, polling booths are set in church basements or in
upstairs meeting halls where there is no ramp or elevator, or
disabled parking. This means problems not just for people who
use wheelchairs, but for people who use canes or walkers too.
And in most states people who are blind don't have the right to
a Braille ballot; they have to bring someone along to vote for
While much remains to be done to achieve the accessible society,
the ADA stands out as what one respected Washington observer
called "one of the government's greatest successes" of the past
decade. Increasingly, in part because of the ADA, people are
beginning to look at disability in a different way. As Professor
Robert Silverstein of George Washington University has written,
"Disability, like race and gender, is a natural and normal part
of the human experience that in no way diminishes a person's
right to live a normal life and participate in mainstream
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