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To Live as Full and Equal Participants

Thirty Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

A lawyer enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act who is also an individual with a disability offers his perspective on thirty years since the ADA’s signing on July 26, 1990.

George H W Bush signs American Disability Act

President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, seated beside US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Evan Kemp (left) and disability rights activist Justin Dart, Jr., often referred to as the “Father of the ADA.” Both men used wheelchairs.

The ADA Network

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or “ADA,” was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The ADA was passed in order to combat discrimination against people with disabilities by employers, government entities, public accommodations, the field of telecommunications, and more.

For the first time, people with disabilities could live outside of institutions and in integrated settings as full and equal participants in American society.

Since May 15, 1997, I have been privileged and honored to work as the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition’s Civil Rights Legal Program Director. In that capacity our team, both on its own and in partnership with other lawyers, has brought hundreds, if not thousands, of cases for the purpose of resolving discrimination faced by people with disabilities. 

Our current and previous cases can be found on CCDC’s website. We have fought discrimination by the State of Colorado, Colorado county and city governments, many public accommodations like restaurants, parking lots, stadiums and large venues, shopping malls and stores, public and private medical facilities, law enforcement agencies, and more. Some highlights include lawsuits against the City and County of Denver regarding Red Rocks Amphitheatre as well as Denver curb ramps, Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, the Regional Transportation District’s light rail trains and buses, and the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

Justin Dart and Jesse Jackson

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson shakes hands with disability rights advocate Justin Dart Jr., during a hearing of the House Committee on Education and Labor on the bill that became the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Library of Congress

Also, in 1986 (four years before ADA), as a result of an accident, I became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down and with limited use of my arms and hands. As a result, I became keenly aware of the need for people with disabilities to be able to enjoy equal opportunity in employment, government services, public accommodations, and more.

The ADA changed my life, just as it has allowed us to change the lives of so many others: providing wheelchair accessibility to those who, like me, must use a wheelchair, to ensure that law enforcement agencies and medical facilities provide needed sign language interpreters to individuals who are deaf, to make sure that individuals who are blind have equal access to websites and digital apps, and to ensure reasonable accommodations for people with all types of disabilities—physical, cognitive, psychiatric, and more.

I learned early in life that individuals with disabilities so often are treated unequally and confront the attitudes of those who refuse to make changes that were unheard of prior to the existence of the ADA. Just one example is when I filed a lawsuit against my own law school, the University of Denver College of Law, after sending numerous letters to the administration requesting that wheelchair accessibility changes be made.

In the absence of the almost thirty-year-old ADA, none of these changes would’ve been possible. Nevertheless, there is so much more to be done.

As I always must instruct people when I teach about the ADA, although it was designed to be a comprehensive mandate to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities, it remains very limited. For example, many old buildings remain inaccessible because of the limits placed on how to bring a case to fix the problems. It is also very difficult to find lawyers who will bring the kinds of cases our Legal Program struggles to bring because people with disabilities often cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Lawyers who take ADA cases most often have clients who can’t afford them, so those lawyers must wait until the end of the case—and only if they win—in order to recover fees and costs.

In another example, as technology changes, the law does not change quickly enough to ensure that people with sensory impairments can access that technology. And these are just a few examples of some of the ADA’s limits.

Most importantly, even though the law may be almost thirty years old, the problem with the ADA, as with any civil rights law, is that laws cannot change attitudes and belief systems. There are so many individuals, businesses, and governments that will discriminate against people with disabilities because they don’t bother to educate themselves. Instead, they wait until they get sued before making required changes, or they simply deny that providing equal treatment to people with disabilities should be required at all.

Until everyone recognizes the humanity of everyone else, laws like the ADA remain needed.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. In the “Findings and purpose” section, the law speaks for itself:

(a)    Findings

The Congress finds that

(1) physical or mental 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 . . . ;

(2) 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;

(3) discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to public services;

(4) unlike individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability have often had no legal recourse to redress such discrimination;

(5) individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion, the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers, overprotective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, exclusionary qualification standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities;

(6) census data, national polls, and other studies have documented that people with disabilities, as a group, occupy an inferior status in our society, and are severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, economically, and educationally;

(7) the Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals; and

(8) the continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous, and costs the United States billions of dollars in unnecessary expenses resulting from dependency and nonproductivity.

(b) Purpose

It is the purpose of this chapter

(1) to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities;

(2) to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities;

(3) to ensure that the Federal Government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in this chapter on behalf of individuals with disabilities; and

(4) to invoke the sweep of congressional authority . . . in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced day-to-day by people with disabilities.