Americans with Disabilities Act anniversary thread

The Americans with Disabilities Act became U.S. law 20 years ago this week. Senator Tom Harkin, the law’s key author and sponsor, will keynote an anniversary celebration in Iowa City on Saturday afternoon. Harkin told the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

“Before the ADA, life was very different for folks in Iowa and across the country,” Harkin said. “Discrimination was both commonplace and accepted.”

After 20 years with ADA, “we recognize that people with disabilities – like all people – have unique abilities, talents and aptitudes,” he said, “and America is better, fairer and richer when we make full use of those gifts.”

However, Harkin sees the need to do more to help people with disabilities live outside of institutions and to help them gain employment.

I remember when Congress was debating this law, and some Republicans warned that new regulations on businesses would wreck the economy and spark endless lawsuits. However, President George H. W. Bush’s administration ultimately decided not to go to war against this bill, and compromise language exempting small businesses from some requirements satisfied most Congressional Republicans. The final version of the ADA passed the Senate on a 91 to 6 vote in July 1990. Senator Chuck Grassley voted yes, as did all the Democrats present and most of the Republicans.

Bipartisan support for ADA continued when Harkin worked with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah to “preserve the intent of the ADA after several court rulings weakened its standards.” The ADA amendments act of 2008 passed by voice vote in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate. Yesterday a Senate resolution recognizing the ADA’s 20th anniversary and celebrating “the advance of freedom and the opening of opportunity” this law made possible passed by a 100 to 0 vote.

Harkin became an advocate for people with disabilities in part because his brother Frank was deaf. Probably most Americans have at least one friend or relative who has directly benefited from the ADA. The accessibility guidelines for curbs, doors and entrances have allowed my wheelchair-bound friend to take her son to the park, to preschool or to a coffee shop. Before the ADA, a mother in her situation would have been unable to enjoy those things.

This thread is for any comments about the ADA or continuing barriers faced by people with disabilities.

UPDATE: tessajp expresses her gratitude at Mother Talkers:

Every time I have pushed my sleeping child up a ramp, rather than take them out and fold the stroller up; I have been grateful for the ADA.

Every time I have taken my five year old into the larger bathroom stall, so that I could help her without having to expose us to the world at large; I have been grateful for the ADA.

Every time I have been able to open a door by pushing a button rather than contorting myself into some sad imitation of Mr. Fantastic in order to open the door and pull the stroller through at the same time; I have been grateful for the ADA.

While I’m sure the 101st Congress had nobler effects in mind when it passed the bill, I, as a fully abled bodied American who has never faced obstacles to full participation in the world, came to appreciate at least a small part of the bill when I became a parent.  So, thanks Senator Harkin for introducing it, and to all those who voted for it.  

LATE UPDATE: Dave Swenson’s reflections on this law are worth a read.

There are countless other provisions, but the point is clearly made here: prior to the ADA passage, persons with disabilities could be systematically discriminated against in a wide array of situations.  They could be denied entry to firms because of narrow doorways or an onerous passage.  They could be made to work in conditions that aggravated an existing impairment.  They could be denied meaningful employment for not being able-bodied when in fact the job required no such status.  And they could be warehoused in schools and institutions for lack of services or simple attention to their needs.

But discrimination is too soft a word.  The disabled in large part were frequently treated with utter indifference.  Due to their situation, they were irrelevant in the market and an afterthought regarding their possible enjoyment of a vast swath of the public’s benefits others of us take for granted.

Granted, the ADA cost the private sector and the public sector plenty in the short run, but in the long run it enhanced the workforce and social well being of millions of Americans.  The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau tell us there are over 41 million persons over the age of 5 with a disability, and a substantial fraction has never known a time when there was no ADA.  Another substantial fraction though remembers and is fully aware of the difference between now and then.

It strikes me, as I ponder this milestone, that the likelihood of the ADA passing today given the current configuration of Congress would be a doubtful enterprise.  For one, as it would impose costs on businesses it would be massively opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (as it was then) as inhibiting the competitiveness of all businesses and therefore, in the main, bad for the economy. As it would require an increase in government spending and oversight, it would add to the deficit, something that apparently is more and more taboo in the current environs.  And lastly, it would interfere with the right and power of all employers to employ the kind of people they most desired.

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