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How the ADA Changed Life for People with Disabilities

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Paralympian Lacey Henderson lost her leg above the knee to childhood cancer. But that didn’t stop her from pursuing her athletic goals. In fact, it fueled her passion.

Henderson has never known a world without the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Yet this vital piece of legislation exists only because of tireless grassroots efforts by disabled people and their allies decades ago.

Be sure to check out Picked Last in Gym Class—Lacey’s spirited podcast about powering through life’s challenges—and keep reading to learn more about the ADA.

What Is the ADA?

Before the ADA was passed in 1990, people with disabilities were routinely relegated to institutions and kept from fully participating in society.

Grassroots advocates were determined to change this. Their first victory came in 1973 with the Rehabilitation Act, which barred recipients of federal funds from discriminating based on disability.

This laid the groundwork for what would become the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Modeled in part after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA was designed to protect people with disabilities against discrimination and ensure they can participate fully in all areas of life.

We see the results of the ADA all around us today, from braille lettering in elevators, to sidewalk cut-outs and wheelchair ramps, to widely available closed captioning.

How the ADA Is Structured

The ADA has five sections or “titles.”

Title I protects disabled individuals from discrimination in employment.

Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities by “public entities” (state and local governments).

Title III makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in public; this includes privately owned or operated facilities, such as hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters.

Title IV sets standards for telephone and internet companies, requiring that these systems enable those with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate.

Title V contains miscellaneous provisions and outlines a list of conditions that are not considered disabilities.

Whether a person qualifies as disabled under the ADA is determined on a case-by-case basis. But in general, the ADA applies to people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

A More Equitable World for People with Disabilities

One in four adults in the U.S. have some kind of disability. This means most of us know someone with a disability—or have one ourselves. Which makes it all the more appalling to learn how people with disabilities were treated in the past. Before the ADA was signed:

  • Restaurants could refuse to serve people with disabilities.

  • Public buildings, such as libraries, weren’t required to provide wheelchair access.

  • Gay people could be considered “disabled” (and homosexuality was considered a “disease” until 1973).

  • Disabled people often had to wear diapers on trains because the bathrooms were often inaccessible.

  • A person with disabilities could legally be paid less for the same work simply because of their disability.

Today these things are pretty much unthinkable—especially for younger people who have grown up with better public accommodations.

ADA Compliant Handicap disability signs with symbol in park

The Fight Continues

Still, the ADA falls short in many ways and has faced its share of critics. Worse, conservatives have shamelessly attacked the law over the years and have even stooped to misusing it as a tool for voter suppression. Some have understandably questioned whether conservatives would even support the law if it were introduced today.

Despite requirements under the ADA to make public spaces accessible to people with disabilities, patients still describe facing an “obstacle course” of challenges for basics like getting weighed at the doctor’s office or getting onto an exam table—that is, if they can get through the office’s front door.

Many businesses and institutions remain inaccessible, and disability-related complaints remain the largest category filed with the federal agencies that enforce fair housing and employment laws.

Still, people with disabilities have shown tremendous courage and tenacity in demanding full and equal protections and treatment under the law. They’ve put their bodies one the line to demand healthcare, and some are fighting against both racial discrimination and ableism in education.

People with disabilities shouldn’t have to show extraordinary courage for basic freedoms. But, as with so many things in America, the fight continues.


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