30-Year Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It was a momentous event that was the number-one civil rights event of the decade. 

The ADA owes its origin to the many thousands of people who have worked for years on issues from independent living to services for individuals with disabilities to live in their communities free of barriers and with all rights as others. It culminated in 1986 with the National Council on Disability which recommended the enactment of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and drafted the first version of the bill which was introduced in the House and Senate in 1988. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) authored what became the final bill and was its chief sponsor in the Senate. Harkin delivered part of his introduction speech in sign language, saying it was so his deaf brother could understand.

Upon signing the bill, President Bush stated, “I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We've all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation, and we've been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred.... Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.

Many have experienced it from curb cuts to electronic powered doors to spacing in hallways; elevators that identify floors by sound; signage in Braille; designated space in bathrooms; and disabled parking.  These various items are taken for granted today with the expectation they should be there and visible.  For HR professionals, Title I is the requirement at work.  The ADA states that a "covered entity" shall not discriminate against "a qualified individual with a disability." Further, for HR professionals of employers with 15 or more employees (“covered entity”), it started the discussion for accommodations, regardless whether an employee self-identified a disability. 

The law was amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which was signed into law and became effective on January 1, 2009. The ADAAA made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability,” essentially trying to steer the discussion from whether an employee has a disability to the interactive discussion and what accommodation should be provided in any given situation.

There is still much work still to be done.  Managers and employees need to be continually trained.  Employer processes need to be reviewed, and budgets should be available for any necessary changes to make employment more accessible.  What remains concerning is that many with a disability remain afraid to self-identify due to concern that their disability will be taken into account in regard to performance issues (especially when there were none previously identified). 

It should also be noted that ADA charges are among the top three filings with the EEOC.  For those in the inclusion space, work on a culture change is still a top priority.  Unfortunately, the ADA is an equal opportunity growth area as anyone can join this group at any time.  Individuals with disabilities also have some of the highest unemployment rates but are also some of the most educated in our society.   Change can be slow, but HR can be the difference-maker in an organization and its culture.


Source:  ADA National Network, Wikipedia

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