50 for 50: Five Decades of the Most Important Discrimination Law Developments - Number 5: The Americans With Disabilities Act Becomes Law In 1990


Like many discrimination laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act was born from a grass roots movement.  On Monday, March 12, 1990, disability activists descended on the U.S. Capitol Building, rallying for equal rights for Americans with disabilities.  The rally ended with a remarkable show of strength and determination by over 60 activists who shed their wheelchairs, crutches and other supports, and began to work their way up the nearly 100 steep, stone steps of the capitol building.  The rally became known as the Capitol Crawl.

Of those who made their mark on the Senators still deliberating the proposed disability legislation, was 8-year-old, second grader Jennifer Keelan who despite suffering from cerebral palsy, inched her way the top of the steep stone steps on her elbows and knees stating “I’ll take all night if I have to!”.  Jennifer reached the top proclaiming “I’m doing it for Kenny,”  her friend who had passed away that January.  Nearby, sprawled on her back and working ahead slowly, was Paulette Patterson, 33, of Chicago:  “I want my civil rights,” “I want to be treated like a human being.”

Shortly thereafter, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed; the most comprehensive civil-rights statute to that day, protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities and providing them equal opportunity and access to mainstream American life. The ADA affected disabled individuals equal access and rights in employment, government programs and services, access to public accommodations and transportation, and much more. 

On July 26, 1990, at the signing of the historic act on the White House lawn, President George H. W. Bush stated: “Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another ‘independence day,’ one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.” “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down”

As aptly summarized by Professor Robert Burgdorf Jr., one of the drafters of the original bill “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.”  “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 a wheelchair.

The ADA, originally expected to cover between 36 and 43 million individuals with disabilities, has since been expanded – very controversially – far beyond that originally envisioned by the drafters and legislators.  The scope of what constitutes a disability, what are mitigating factors, what limitations are required to provide protections in  the employment context and the obligations of employers has been an ever evolving and drastically changing landscape.  Stay tuned to our “50 For 50” Title VII anniversary series on these changes.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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