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Five Things You May Not Know About the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)!

President Bush signs into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 on the South Lawn of the White House, (July 26, 1990). (Public domain, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

1.ADA legislation was deeply influenced by activists, stakeholders, elected officials and even a university president!

Gallaudet University is the world's only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students. In 1988, upon the resignation of Gallaudet's seventh president, Dr. Jerry C. Lee, who was not deaf, the university decided to appoint a hearing president, Dr. Elisabeth Zinser. This decision led to a protest called the "Deaf President Now" (DPN) movement which shut down the university. Students barricaded the campus gates, conducted sit-in’s, rallies, marches, and peaceful demonstrations while demanding the appointment of a deaf president. This brought national attention to the issues of inclusion, representation, and the rights of people with disabilities. Within a week, the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees reversed it’s decision and selected I. King Jordan as the first deaf president in the history of the school. Soon after, Jordan would become a founding member on the Task Force On The Rights And Empowerment of Americans With Disabilities which directly influenced the ADA legislation. On May 9, 1989, Jordan testified at the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, “…[the] passage of ADA: Will tell disabled Americans that they are indeed equal to other Americans and that discrimination toward disabled persons will no longer be tolerated in our country. It will also make a powerful statement to the world that America is true to its ideals. That is the full measure of the American dream..” ( “Hand-Drawn People With Disabilities Illustration”

2. At first, the idea of the Americans with Disabilities Act was not taken seriously.

In 1982, Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., and Chris Bell co-authored a report called "Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities" for the Office of the General Counsel of the Civil Rights Commission. Burgdorf recalls that, "We wrote an article making two principal points: A federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability should cover all the contexts in which Congress had prohibited discrimination in other civil rights laws and, beyond that, should extend to all entities that affect interstate commerce; and such a law should, unlike then-existing disability statutes, define, explain and set standards as to what constitutes disability discrimination." After publishing the report, Burgdorf and Bell were disappointed because, "[Burgdorf and Bell believed]...that our blueprint would inspire legislative action by members of Congress or their staffs, the article was generally ignored." (

3. President Ronald Reagan was not in favor of disability anti-discrimination protections and seemed to be aloof about the subject.

Reagan wanted to streamline regulatory processes, promote and have a broader economic program to help businesses and industries. As a result of these efforts, there was a negative impact on education and disability rights. Reagan's "stance on disability rights was set as one of cutting corners and reallocating money for programs aiding the disability community to other entities." (Bushue, Mikenzi (2022) "The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Step Towards Equality," Legacy: Vol. 22: Iss. 1, Article 3).Afterward, Reagan disbanded the National Council of the Handicapped (NCH)." This ultimately led to the establishment of the National Council on Disability (NCD), which released a report called "Towards Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities – With Legislative Recommendations," written by Burgdorf, Jr. This report led to recommendations that called for the "enactment of a comprehensive law prohibiting discrimination based on disability" However, Reagan and other legislators ignored the report, and no action was taken during his administration…[and] showed his utter disregard for disability rights.” (Bushue, Mikenzi (2022) "The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Step Towards Equality," Legacy: Vol. 22: Iss. 1, Article 3). In spite of this development, a white knight for the disability rights movement appeared, in the form of Vice President George H.W. Bush. "On the evening of January 28th, President Reagan had been scheduled to give the annual State of the Union address. In light of the Challenger tragedy, he decided to postpone the State of the Union for a week and instead made a national address on the disaster…One of the meetings that fell by the wayside was an appointment the Council had made to present Toward Independence personally to the President on the morning of January 30th. When the White House notified the Council of the cancellation, it offered a suggestion that the presenters meet instead with Vice President George H.W. Bush. When contacted directly, the Vice President’s staff said the Council representatives would have 10 minutes and a photo opportunity...Unexpectedly, the Vice President showed considerable interest in the Council’s report. The scheduled ten-minute meeting turned into an extended discussion that continued uninterrupted for over an hour…Vice President Bush clearly had given thought to the content of the report, and discussed a few issues, including education and equal opportunity laws, in some detail. He did not offer a single criticism of the Council’s recommendations. As the meeting ended, Bush promised that he would forward the report to President Reagan, and said that he wished he could do more, but that there was only so much he could do as vice president.” ( This was a significant breakthrough for proponents of the disability anti-discrimination law, as President Bush would sign the ADA into effect just a little over four years later on July 26, 1990.

Image by Marielam1, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Supreme Court was strict about the ADA! Maybe too strict!

The Court played a significant role by narrowly shaping the interpretation and application of the ADA throughout the 1990’s. In 1999, four significant rulings by the Supreme Court became the subject of controversy as these cases greatly narrowed the scope of the ADA. The Court held in each case relative to the ADA statute and EEOC regulations, as a broad interpretation, that mitigating measures must be considered when determining if an individual has a disability. The court decided that if mitigating measures ameliorated the disability, then the person was no longer considered disabled under the definition of the ADA. This had significant implications for how disability discrimination claims were evaluated and made it more difficult for some individuals to qualify for protection under the ADA. The rulings sparked criticism from disability rights advocates and members of Congress, who argued that it undermined the original intent of the ADA to provide broad protections against discrimination for individuals with disabilities. "These decisions have created a catch-22, in which an individual who is able to lessen the adverse impact of an impairment by use of a mitigating measure like medicine or a hearing aid can be fired from a job or otherwise face discrimination on the basis of that impairment and yet not be considered sufficiently disabled to be protected by the ADA. Congress never intended such an absurd result...These changes are long overdue. Countless Americans with disabilities have already been deprived of the opportunity to prove that they have been victims of discrimination, that they are qualified for a job, or that a reasonable accommodation would afford them an opportunity to participate fully at work and in community life," were the remarks of Congressman Jerry Nadler on September 17, 2008, during the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act 2008 in the Senate.

"Crowd protesting against coronavirus" image by user55852065, pch.vector -

5. COVID-19 created extensive and lingering change in the workforce.

COVID-19 changed the world in 2020. As a rapidly spreading respiratory virus, COVID brought about significant disruptions of global economies, job losses, business closures, and financial instability. Businesses had to rapidly pivot and adapt as they were forced to expand flexible work arrangements for employees. This resulted in far-reaching changes in how employees completed job responsibilities and forced businesses to think of different workplace accommodations for employees. Workplace health and safety protocols were immediately put in place to protect employees from COVID-19 exposure. Many organizations implemented physical adjustments in the workplace such as barriers, PPE and hand sanitizing stations to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Businesses created remote work arrangements to comply with public health guidelines which morphed into hybrid work for many. COVID-19 also led to layoffs, furloughs, and business closures in many industries. This change in the workplace had immense impact on people with disabilities and accelerated support for consideration of return to work challenges, needs and workplace access, physical and mental health, well being, and safety needs, access to social activities, reasonable accommodations for remote work, such as assistive technology, flexible scheduling, or modified job duties and providing an inclusive and supportive workplace culture. COVID 19 further marginalized people with disabilities who faced continuous barriers in employment, unconscious biases, lack of awareness from stakeholders, and insufficient accommodations to help them perform the the job. "Post-pandemic, it is vital to continue to meet people where they are at, prioritize flexible options, and challenge practices that intentionally or unintentionally exclude disabled people...COVID-19 exacerbated the ableist practices that continue to devalue the lives of disabled people...instead of a return to normal, we need drive for perpetual motion and flexibility," (Saia, T., Nerlich, A. P., & Johnston, S. P., Why Not the “New Flexible”?: The Argument for Not Returning to “Normal” After COVID-19, Rehabilitation Counselors and Educators Journal, 11(1), 2021. Going forward, the fallout from COVID-19 will continue to have far-reaching impacts and may lead to a call for Universal Design, adjustments in the law for further anti-discrimination protections and an amendment to the ADA.

Five Things You May Not Know About the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)! © 2024 by Eric Kalet is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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