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30 Years of the ADA—What Does it Mean for Us?

If you’re older than 40, you probably remember the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act on June 26, 1990. George H.W. Bush signed it into law.

It seems like it’s been around a lot longer than that; maybe because the push for handicap parking started in the late 1960s and hit its stride in the late 1970s. I was 26 in 1990. There is a movie that came out in 2007, Music Within, about Richard Pimentel, the Vietnam veteran credited with starting the movement to pass the ADA. I saw the movie in 2009, and don’t remember the story very well, so I looked it up again. Pimentel lost his hearing in Vietnam, and when he tried to go out for pancakes with his veteran friend who used a wheelchair, they were discouraged by the steps up to the restaurant entrance. That’s what started it all.

We mostly think of the beginning of the ADA as a time when suddenly there were curb cutouts and beeping buttons at every city crosswalk. As those new ATMs flooded the country, they all had Braille keyboards, even the ones at the bank’s drive-through, which provided jokes for the comedians of the time.

American Sign Language interpreters appeared at public speaking events, and at all government functions. Increased exposure to ASL led a lot of people to take classes and learn the basics.

We know that public buildings have to be accessible, and your employer has to make “reasonable accommodations,” but what else does the ADA actually say?

The original ADA as passed in 1990 said it was illegal to discriminate against individuals with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, telecommunications, and state and local government service. The way people were to be protected from discrimination has evolved over time. Titles II and III were added in 1991, and there have been more revisions since.

The “living document” nature of the law is revealed in the inconsistent numbering scheme between sections. Only an editor like me would notice that. The text is predictably heavy on wheelchair users and blind and deaf people. Invisible disabilities are acknowledged, though. Section 12102 defines what constitutes a disability; the mental gymnastics of applying it to rheumatoid arthritis, for example, are up to the readers and their attorneys.

The law is now incredibly specific in what is required for the “standard” disabilities; for example, you may think in general terms, like you know “the commuter train has to be wheelchair-accessible.” Under the law, one car per train must be outfitted for wheelchair access (12162.a.1). The section goes into great detail about what “wheelchair accessible” means for different types of trains. Where on-board restrooms are provided, the accessible car must have an accessible restroom, that sort of thing. Requirements for dining cars are spelled out. There are even sections on requirements for refurbished and vintage train cars! (Subchapter 2, Part B, Subpart II, Section 12162.d and 12184.c)

You can see how individual lawsuits have influenced the law over time, like there is a section exempting federal wilderness areas from providing accommodations (Sec. 12207). Wilderness areas being roadless by definition, it would be impossible to provide paved trails for wheelchairs. You know that had to come about from a disabled hiker wanting to use a wilderness area.

There are weird provisions in it; for example someone found it necessary to codify the fact that being a transvestite is not a disability (Sec. 12208). I wonder what year that was added; awareness of the variety of gender distinctions is so high these days, you hardly ever hear the word “transvestite” anymore, while it used to be a suburban catch-all for anything related to gender nonconformity.

Now here’s an excerpt that I would like to shove in the face of my local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation office, from Section 12102.4.D:  “An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” I argued with them at length when they did skill testing on a good day for me, and I insisted the results would vary, and if you tested me every day for a month, I’d have 30 different scores. I did score poorly enough to be declared eligible for services by the State of Washington. The low quality of the services offered was covered in a previous post.

Here are some bleak statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2018:

  • 12.6 percent of the U.S. population has a disability (40.6 million people)
  • Of these people, 7.6 million are employed.
  • The median income for people employed with a disability is $23,848.

I did slightly better than that for income last year, and I have to tell you, it’s not a high standard of living. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence where one big vet bill or car repair can plow me under. You would think, after 30 years of protection under the law, that things would be better for us. This tells me that compliance is halfhearted and grudging at best in most places. Remember, there are many professionals with disabilities who are pulling up the median (but probably not by as much as they should) and a huge number of us are probably hovering around the poverty line ($12,760 in 2020).

I think the best effect the ADA has had is in public awareness. It seems that in the midst of what Whoopi Goldberg termed our “cold civil war” currently happening in the US, a lot of people are awakening to the simple fact that identity politics are nothing more than groups of people trying to get a seat at the table. The term “ableist” is used often, and people are finally starting to figure out what it means. In Michelle Lent Hirsch’s book, Invisible, she defines disability as “the failure of the world to make space for us.” Ableism is just that; failure to consider people with disabilities in the design of public places and events.

In 2018 I did a study on the VegExpo vegan festival in Vancouver, BC, and how it failed to accommodate the many people I saw there with disabilities, and me specifically. I sent them the link to the post and they didn’t respond, but I hope they did better in 2019. I had neither the income nor the endurance to find out. The experience gave me the insight, though, to realize that my inability to fully enjoy the event wasn’t about my limitations, but the event’s one-size-fits-all design that left me behind. It’s not that I was even asking for that much—it would have taken so little to make it more inclusive. (Canada’s disability laws are covered under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act.)

The ADA has established a minimum threshold for accommodation. Some businesses, like Home2 Suites by Hilton, recognize that doing the bare minimum isn’t enough, and their hotels are a flagship model for inclusiveness. I love that they looked at the rules and said, “That’s not enough; we can do better than that.”

Sometimes it takes a law to get people to do the right thing. I wonder what the ADA will look like in another 10 years. Have you benefitted from the ADA? Has it failed you? Tell us about your experience. Also, if you have a witty suggestion for our “ceiling,” as in the glass ceiling for women and the gray ceiling for seniors, please share it in the comments. I would love to have a snarky term for us to use on our employers and social service workers.

30 Years of the ADA—What Does it Mean for Us?

Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.

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, . (2020). 30 Years of the ADA—What Does it Mean for Us?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Jun 2020
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