Twenty-Three Years with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

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by Samantha Garcia, CFILC’s Office & Logistics Coordinator

[In a large parking lot, people use their bodies to spell out ADA. Most people appear to use wheelchairs.]

Signed into law on July 26th, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is “one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation,” in American history (

Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA was the result of decades of work by thousands of people in the disability community and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.

Assistive technology (AT) plays a major role in helping to realize the goals of the ADA. From reasonable accommodations for employees to the many ways people with disabilities access communications, public facilities and accommodations (“Assistive Technology, Accommodations, and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Cornell University).

Long before the ADA was first introduced in 1988, local groups advocated for rights, parents fought against exclusions, and, as we know well, the Independent Living movement was established – all making public the discrimination and injustices people with disabilities had faced for so long.

a black and white picture shows a crowd of people, some of whom use wheelchairs, one man has a service dog with him. They are children and adults and appear to be chanting or singing. One person holds a sign that says, “We shall overcome.”

One of the largest legal catalysts for the ADA was the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, which barred discrimination on the basis of disability for federally-funded projects. However, after four years, regulations still had not been released, so – among other actions – groups of people with disabilities demonstrated at the eight regional Department of Health Education Welfare (HEW) headquarters. The most famous sit-in of this time took place in San Francisco and lasted for 28 days, after which, regulations were released.

Protestors - many using wheelchairs and one man with an american flag that has the stars in the shape of a wheelchair

Section 504 was a win for the disability rights movement but the disability community spent the next decade working to protect it and the civil rights they were fighting for, educating courts, working through multiple court battles, participating in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and working on Fair Housing Act amendments. 

There were wins and losses, but the disability community was becoming a respected force and were acting as and seen as a unified group, rather than separate groups of people with specific disabilities. Importantly, the disability community also determined that those with communicable diseases, such as AIDS, were to be included in this fight against discrimination. Finally, inequality was starting to be seen for what it was and changes were taking place.

Lawyers, advocates, negotiators, policy analysts, task forces, networks, witnesses and legislators worked long and hard to create the ADA and ensure it was enacted. Among many other measures, hearings were held during which Senators, veterans, and community members spoke on the injustices they had encountered, and thousands wrote their stories in letters that they sent to be read at the hearings.

President Bush is seated at a table outside, signing a document. Reverend Harold Wilke and Sandra Parrino stand behind him, Evan Kemp and Justin Dart are to the left and right of him

Justin Dart, Sandra Parrino, Harold Wilke and Evan Kemp, all involved from various moving parts of the disability rights movement, flanked President Bush as he signed the ADA into law and said that, in addition to having great privilege as an American, it was everyone’s “sacred duty to ensure that every other American’s rights are also guaranteed.” We have not yet reached this maxim, but what President Bush called the start of “a new era of equality, independence and freedom” has certainly led to greater access, independence and awareness of inequality due to the work of those who got us to where we are today – a place where accessible hotel rooms ensure that people with physical disabilities can shower while traveling, a person who uses a wheelchair can take a public bus with greater ease and where a person can live an independent life because they can get a job without worry of discrimination based on their disability (“ADA Signing Ceremony”   

On the day of the signing of the ADA, President Bush stated that “we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America” (“ADA Signing Ceremony” We think of this as we honor and remember the work of those many who worked tirelessly so we could celebrate the signing of the ADA as we do today, 23 years later. We still have a lot of work to do to ensure civil rights for us all and we wage wars against inequality and discrimination: to protect children from bullying; to ensure people with disabilities have full access to independence, such as accessible and affordable housing; and to guarantee basic rights for all Americans…but we know the way – we have done it before.

As we look back on our communities’ accomplishments let us not forget the assistive technology that allowed us to advocate for ourselves, our children and our brothers and sisters with disabilities. Assistive Technology is often an afterthought, but is critical to our livelihood, our independence and our future.

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