ADA: 25 Years of Equality, Independence and Freedom

Posted by on Aug 5, 2015 in Government, People and Culture, United States

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This is civil rights legislation intended to create equal opportunities for people with disabilities. It provides both protection from discrimination and requires employers and public facilities to provide appropriate accommodations. In honor of its 25th anniversary of this important legislation, btw takes a look at the legacy and impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A Short History

Obama and robot.

President Obama views some of the latest technology available to the disabled on the 25th anniversafy of the ADA. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Like the civil rights movements that came before it, the fight for disability equality legislation began with the grassroots efforts of those determined to raise awareness of their challenges. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 helped pave the way. The “Rehab Act,” as it is commonly known, prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in all federal agencies (including companies receiving federal funds). Section 504 in particular helped define those with disabilities as an official minority group.

The first draft of the ADA was introduced in Congress in 1988. After much debate, political negotiation, and text revision a new draft of the possible legislation was developed and reintroduced in 1989. Coalitions made up of advocates for the blind, the deaf, the mobility impaired, and the developmentally disabled–among others–joined together to influence lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill.

By March of 1990, the bill had stalled in the House of Representatives. In response, more that 1,000 protestors gathered in Washington D.C. A group of 60 persons with disabilities gained the attention of many by abandoning their mobility devices (including wheelchairs and crutches) and crawling up the stairs to the Capitol building.


The Americans with Disabilities Act is made up of five sections (called Titles), each addressing a different aspect of the legislation.

  • Title I (Employment) Prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against hiring qualified candidates who have disabilities.
  • Title II (Public Entities & Public Transportation) Requires all public entities on a local level (such as government buildings or school districts) to offer access to all programs and services offered by the entity.
  • Title III (Public Accommodations & Commercial Facilities) Requires places of public accommodation–such as restaurants, lodging, or retail stores–to offer appropriate access or modify existing facilities through construction.
  • Title IV (Telecommunications) Requires telecommunications companies to provide appropriate assistance to those with impairments–most notably hearing and sight.
  • Title V (Miscellaneous Provisions) Protects against retaliation of anyone seeking protection under any of the above titles.


Twenty-five years later, the ADA is largely credited for sweeping improvements that affected and aided the lives of millions of people with disabilities. These changes include increased access to public venues, transportation, housing, education and healthcare. It also raised awareness to the plight of a population once subject to widespread discrimination.

Braille being used on elevator buttons

Braille on elevator buttons is one result of the changes brought about by the ADA. Photo crediL McGraw-Hill Education.

However, the ADA has also been subject to criticism and opposition from its inception. One of the biggest complaints against the law is the high cost of compliance. Some accuse the legislation of federal overreach, saying that many of the provisions are unreasonable, go too far, and damage business profitability and flexibility. Others say that the ADA laws leave businesses vulnerable to unfair lawsuits.

Another issue that threatens to overshadow the advantages gained by the ADA is the current high unemployment rate among the disabled. According to the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, only around 15 percent of disabled adults are employed. This is down considerably from 29 percent in 1990, when the ADA became law.

What Do You Think? Do you have, or know anyone with, a disability? If they are old enough to have lived before and after the ADA, ask them if his or her life has been affected by the provisions in the law.