When the Shameful Walls of Exclusion Finally Came Tumbling Down: A Historical Background of the ADA

Submitted by Paul Simmons on Mon, 02/17/2020


The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990, was a momentous event for people with disabilities in the United States. The signing of the ADA marked the culmination of civil rights for everyone in the United States that started with the passage of the Civil Rights Act which was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on July 2, 1964, at the White House.

The passage of the ADA marked the culmination of the fight for equal access by people with disabilities, which started with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King. It became illegal to discriminate against people based on their Race, Gender, National Origin, and Religion. People with disabilities were however not included in the landmark legislation against discrimination.

Although disability has been a feature of humanity, the first recorded instance in the United States may be the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. It has been suggested that some of the “witches” put to death at Salem, Massachusetts, were actually individuals who had intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. In 1776, Stephen Hopkins, a Founding Father, who had cerebral palsy, signed the Declaration of Independence. He said, while signing the declaration that “My hands may tremble; my heart does not.”

In 1817, the first school for primary and secondary education to receive federal aid was the American School for the Deaf in in Hartford, Connecticut which was granted a tract of land in the Alabama territory. While there may be other legislative acts over the years, I will focus on disability legislation after the Civil Rights Act was passed on July 2, 1964.

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) became law in 1968 and required all federally owned or leased buildings to be accessible to disabled people. The ABA is recognized as the first measure by Congress to ensure access to the built environment for people with disabilities. The law requires that buildings or facilities that were designed, built, or altered with federal dollars or leased by federal agencies after August 12, 1968 be accessible.

The first legislative measure focusing on prohibiting discrimination based on disability after the Civil Rights Act in 1964 happened in 1973. Dr. Frank Bowe (a Deaf man) along with other iconic Disability Rights activists got the U.S Government to pass the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 that forbade any discrimination based on disability under Section 504 of the act. Dr. Frank Bowe has been called "the Father of Section 504" in honor of his activism.

The Rehabilitation Act, however only applied to entities receiving Federal funds. State and Local governments did not benefit, unless specific programs received federal funds. It is important to note that 9 years passed between the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 AND the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. People with disabilities continued to fight against discrimination on state and local levels.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed to guarantee equal access to public education for children with disabilities. This act of legislation specified that every child had a right to education and mandated the full inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education classes, unless a satisfactory level of education could not be achieved due to the nature of the child’s disability.

Another significant milestone was also achieved in 1975, when the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was founded. The ACCD was the first disability rights group that was created, governed and administered by disabled individuals. The formation of ACCD was significant in that it was the first national group that pulled together disability groups representing different populations of the disabled in the United States.

In the 1970s, self-advocacy groups, such as DREDF (Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund), ADAPT, originally an acronym for Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation and later changed to Americans Disabled Attendant Programs in 1990, and the CIL (Centers for Independent Living), helped to shape the national conversation around disability. The CIL provides services for people with disabilities in the community and was started in 1972 in Berkeley, California.

In 1978, the Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley was the first lawsuit filed under the Education for All Handicapped Children (EHA) of 1975. Amy Rowley was a deaf student, whose school refused to provide a sign language interpreter. Her parents filed suit contending violation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. In a 6–3 decision, Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist stated that both the district court and the Second Circuit had inappropriately ignored the definition of “free appropriate public education” provided in the EHA. The Court held that public schools are not required by law to provide sign language interpreters to deaf students who are otherwise receiving an equal and adequate education.

The National Council on Disability (formerly the National Council on the Handicapped) was originally established as a small advisory Council within the Department of Education in 1978. NCD was transformed into an independent agency in 1984 and was charged with reviewing all federal disability programs and policies. The NCD  issued their report, Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities - With Legislative Recommendations on February 1, 1986.

In 1983, the NCD called on Congress to include persons with disabilities in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil and voting rights legislation and regulations. In 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act became law required polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to people with disabilities for federal elections.

On January 29, 1988, the NCD sent in their follow-up report, On the Threshold of Independence, where the NCD pledged to send in annual reports to the President and the Congress of the United States. Such reports would cover available data on health, housing, employment, insurance, transportation, recreation, and education, and shall include appropriate information on the current status and trends in the status of individuals with disabilities.

Both the Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities - With Legislative Recommendations and the On the Threshold of Independence reports were significant in pushing the U.S. government to pass federal level legislation to end discrimination—on the basis of disability—on state and local levels.

On May 9, 1988, Senator Tom Harkin (D) from Iowa, brought forward the "Americans with Disabilities" to the senate floor. On September 7, 1989, Senator Harkin’s Americans with Disabilities Act (S. 933, Senate Report 101-116) bill was passed by a vote of 76 to 8. On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law and uttered the famous words, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”



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