Quick Snapshot of Disability Rights Laws in The United States

Published December 10, 2020

Millions of Americans with disabilities today lead self-reliant lives according to their own ideas, beliefs, and aspirations. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first introduced in Congress in 1988 and finally signed on July 26, 1990 with much ceremonial fanfare, the story of the ADA began much earlier. This historic legislation did not come to fruition because of the hard work of any one individual or group, but because of the innumerable faceless warriors who continued to fuel the disability right movements through the better part of the 20th century.

A movement led by thousands of people

The origins of the disabilities rights laws in the United States can be traced back to the mid-1900s when people with disabilities spread across the length and breadth of the country starting raising their voice against the social hurdles that excluded them from being equal participants in their communities. Parents and families of children with disabilities also joined this movement to protect against the segregation and exclusion of their kids.

Over the years, the scattered voices of individual protestors came together to form local groups that represented all Americans with disabilities in order to advocate their rights more effectively. The fight gathered momentum year after year and turned into a robust living national movement that challenged the societal barriers and questioned misplaced notions about how to deal with disability.

The movement focused on combating the deep-rooted misconceptions that people with disabilities must be segregated and institutionalized, and worked for their right to live and receive services within the community like anyone else.

Policy change with Section 504

Disability public policy received a major boost in 1973 with the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This section prohibited disability-based discrimination against individuals who would be eligible to receive federal funds. The legislation was modeled after the earlier regulations that prohibited racial and gender based discrimination against the recipients of federal funds.

The establishment of Section 504 demonstrated the resolve of Congress to recognize that the socio-economic challenges faced by persons with disabilities did not result from the disability itself, but instead were a consequence of age-old social prejudices and barriers. It was finally accepted that legislation was the most effective way to end discrimination against people with disabilities, just as with women and ethnic minorities.

With the passage of the historic Section 504, people with disabilities were recognized as a legitimate minority group that deserved equal access to education, employment, and other societal avenues and opportunities. The efforts to end the discrimination and protect the essential civil rights through legislation became pivotal to the movement’s success.

The passage of the ADA in 1990

Following the establishment of non-discrimination as a civil right under Section 504, the next logical step was to determine what non-discrimination would constitute with regard to disability, and whether it was distinct or similar to gender and racial discrimination. It took another 15 years of lobbying and campaigning before the Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced in 1988.

The original version of the ADA went through multiple negotiations, revisions, drafts and amendments before the Act as we know it today was passed in 1990. The ADA ensured equal access and equal treatment to people with disabilities with regard to public accommodations and employment opportunities.

The core objective of the ADA was to ban discriminatory behavior on the grounds of disability in public places, telecommunication and transport services, services provided by the governments, and employment opportunities. Business organizations under the ADA were required to ensure reasonable accommodation for persons with disability. Public services were prohibited from denying facilities and services to persons with disability. Public accommodations were required to modify their spaces to make them accessible and adaptive to persons with disability.

With the enactment of this historic legislation, the United States has legally identified and enforced the complete integration, inclusion, and participation of persons with disability across the social spectrum. While more needs to be done in terms of enforcement of the law, self-affirmation and empowerment of Americans with disabilities is now a reality in letter and spirit.