The ADA 30 Years Later: A Continued Call to Action

By Molly Bashay

While history paints a sanitized version of events, the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act was hard-won. This July marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA, signed into law on July 26, 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability, whether mental or physical. The ADA builds on protections established within the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the ADA’s employment provisions afford employees with disabilities the right to request and receive reasonable accommodations to create equally accessible workplaces.

Visceral direct action like the Capitol Crawl, where disability rights activists abandoned their mobility aids to ascend the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building on March 12, 1990, pressured Congress to pass the ADA. And while the enactment of the ADA was an unmitigated success for the community, there is still more work to do to ensure that people with disabilities have access to good jobs with a living wage, educational opportunities, public benefits, and the accommodations they need to lead healthy, independent, and prosperous lives.

This year, in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legacy of the ADA and disability rights activists’ work is clear. Many changes that enable effective quarantine are the very same accommodations people with disabilities have fought for and often been denied in their workplaces and school environments for decades. Yet, accommodations like remote work and telecommuting, livestreaming of events, online coursework and postsecondary classes, telemedicine, and online grocery ordering and delivery became commonplace overnight once the abled community expressed a need. Many fights, like raising home and community-based services funding levels to meet heightened need as a result of the pandemic, are still underway.

Even today, several aspects of daily life remain partially or wholly inaccessible to people with disabilities, and even more so for people living at the intersection of race and disability. The community of people with disabilities led early activism to plug glaring gaps like the digital divide, now a hot topic among abled workers, activists, and legislators. Digital accessibility is a constant issue for sighted and visually impaired or blind people who may struggle without the skills necessary to navigate a job search portal or without the accessibility functions (e.g., compatibility with screen readers) that enable full use of a website. Similarly, audio captioning and image descriptions are not yet commonplace, meaning we must do more to address digital accessibility. In the absence of telework options provided by employers, commuting to work presents another barrier, often literally: a lack of curb cuts, inaccessible commuter shuttles, bus stops, and subway trains, and other ADA noncompliance put undue burden on commuters with disabilities and can even limit the jobs they are able to accept. These accommodations are essential to increasing equitable access to jobs, educational opportunities, and basic needs like food, health care, public benefits, and other necessities.

Even more severe, several punitive policies and industry practices put the lives of people with disabilities at risk. Due to a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities based on their perception of employees’ productivity. And those individuals subsisting on disability income from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program cannot get married without risk or loss of their benefits. SSI recipients also cannot have more than $2,000 ($3,000 for married couples) in cash savings, retirement funds, and other countable assets, meaning an individual must remain poor to retain eligibility and will be less able to weather a financial emergency. Because homes are excluded as assets, this policy is particularly punitive for people of color who are more likely to be renters. Before the creation of tax-advantaged ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Accounts, individuals and their families were left to shoulder any extra costs of living with a disability, constrained by eligibility restrictions. Beyond income, individuals with disabilities are often caught between guardians who infantilize them and a health care system that questions the value of their lives.

Especially now, as the United States reckons with its racist and exclusionary past and present, we must also continue to push for inclusive and accessible progress for people with disabilities. While the ADA and subsequent legislation have furthered disability rights, our nation must continue to support people with disabilities, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color and people with low incomes, in achieving full and complete access to the good jobs, workforce development programs, and educational and everyday opportunities to which they aspire.