The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 - ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. Its passage came after years of advocacy by disability rights supporters. The ADA followed earlier national legislation that guaranteed disability rights in government, housing, and education, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which amended the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to include people with disabilities, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which was the predecessor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, President George H.W. Bush declared that the ADA would ensure people with disabilities “the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”

The ADA is the most comprehensive of the nation’s disability laws. It guarantees the right of individuals with disabilities to receive reasonable accommodations in order to work and participate in all aspects of society. It prohibits disability discrimination.

The ADA is divided into four main sections, which are called Titles:  Title I covers employment; Title II covers public entities and public transportation; Title III covers public accommodations and commercial facilities; and Title IV covers telecommunications. There is also Title V, which contains miscellaneous provisions.

The most important civil rights decision for people with disabilities is the United States Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision. Olmstead was based on Title II of the ADA.

History of the ADA

For much of American history, people with disabilities were discriminated against. They were prohibited from attending schools. They were denied employment. They were forced to live in institutions that were segregated where only people with similar disabilities lived.

Many people were separated from their families as children and lived their entire lives in these institutions. In Georgia, for instance, approximately thirty thousand unmarked graves are scattered in the fields near the state’s largest hospital. These grave hold the remains of men and women who had been confined for decades there.

Over time, individuals and groups began to advocate against this discrimination. An entire movement developed seeking the basic rights guaranteed to all Americans. What is now called the disability rights movement developed during the same time period that civil rights movements were developing in the U.S. that were based on race, ethnicity, and gender. 

Justin Dart is often thought of as the father of the ADA. Dart was a successful businessman who created a number of businesses, including Tupperware Japan. He earned degrees in political science and history and wanted to become a teacher, but his teaching certificate was withheld because he used a wheelchair. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Dart to be the vice-chair of the National Council on Disability. Dart traveled the country meeting with disability rights advocates. He and other advocates on the National Council ultimately created a policy proposal for national civil rights legislation to end disability discrimination. This became the framework for the ADA.

The National Council on Disability successfully recruited Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. (R-CT) and Congressman Tony Coelho (D-CA) to introduce the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1988. While the ADA did not pass that year, it was reintroduced in 1989 and championed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). 

Throughout the bill’s travels through Congress, disability rights advocates worked with legislative leaders to ensure its passage. Thousands of disability advocates came to the U.S. Capitol on March 12, 1990 to rally and meet with legislators. The event culminated with the Capitol Crawl where over 60 disability advocates abandoned their wheelchairs and climbed the 83 steps of the Capitol to urge the ADA’s passage.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed on July 26, 1990.  At its signing, President Bush stated:

This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.

Framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)

At the outset of the ADA, the United States Congress made specific findings that laid out the history of discrimination against people with disabilities and the need for the new law. It then stated the purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Next, Congress defined the term qualified person with a disability in order to explain who is protected by the law. Finally, Congress divided the ADA into five titles to differentiate the areas of American life covered by the law. 

Congressional Findings in the ADA

Before setting out the law, the United States Congress made certain findings in the ADA, including:

  • “disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society, yet many people with physical or mental disabilities have been precluded from doing so because of discrimination”
  • “historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem”
  • "the Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency”

Purpose of the ADA

Congress stated the purpose of the ADA is “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”

Definition of Disability

The ADA prohibits discrimination against what it terms a “qualified person with a disability.” This term is defined as  42 U.S.C. § 12102. The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

Titles of the ADA

Title I—employment

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 covers employers in the private sector, state and local governments, and labor unions. It prohibits discrimination against such individuals and requires employers to provide such individuals reasonable accommodations. It covers employers with 15 or more employees.

Title II—public entities (and public transportation)

Title II of the ADA prohibits public entities, including state and local governments, from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities” by excluding them from services and activities due to their disability. As part of the ADA, federal regulations were created to enforce the Act. One of the regulations created by the United States Justice Department was called the “integration mandate.” The integration mandate requires public entities to “administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the qualified individuals with disabilities.” This integration mandate would become the basis of the Olmstead decision in 1999.

Title II  of the ADA also covers public transportation provided by state and local government entities. 

Title III—public accommodations (and commercial facilities)
Title III of the ADA covers businesses that are open to the public that fall within one of 12 categories listed in the Americans with Disabilities Act. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires requires newly constructed or altered buildings of these businesses to comply with the ADA Standards.

Title IV—telecommunications
Title IV of the ADA amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require telecommunications companies to provide functionally equivalent services to individuals with disabilities.

Title V - miscellaneous provisions
Title V provides miscellaneous provisions that cover the entire ADA. Most importantly, it prohibits retaliation against individuals who enforce their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.