Understanding the ADA: Making Access the Law of the Land

When Congress passed and the president signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, accessibility became a legally protected right for people in the United States. The statute marked a landmark extension of civil rights protections beyond traditional categories of gender and race. The ADA clearly articulates its purpose: “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”

In the nearly 20 years since the ADA became law, political and legal controversy has swirled over the definition of who is and is not a disabled person for purposes of the law. Even so, legal scholars and disability rights advocates agree that the ADA opened doors and offered protections to people with disabilities that fundamentally changed the experience of being disabled in America.

Before the ADA, people with disabilities had certain protections under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of disability by programs or activities that received federal funding. The ADA removed the condition of federal aid and disallowed discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations, transportation, telecommunications and services offered by public utilities. The statute gives people who believe themselves victims of disability-related discrimination the right to bring complaints and litigation against alleged violators.

The ADA is administered by several federal, cabinet-level agencies, including the Departments of Transportation, Justice, and Labor. Each agency’s regulations implement the ADA by setting specific and often very detailed criteria that employers and various kinds of services providers must satisfy to comply.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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