January 2009
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The pursuit of equality

The pursuit of equality

by Krista Reisdorf

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 53 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities. About 32 million people—12 percent of the total population—have a severe disability. In addition, 11 percent of children ages 6 to 14 and 72 percent of adults age 80 and older have disabilities.

Fortunately, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was established in 1990 to protect the rights of disabled U.S. citizens. Signed into law July 26, 1990, ADA ensures equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.

However, ADA can trace its roots back 30 years before it became law—during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In fact, ADA has been described as a blend of two significant civil rights statutes—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although minorities and women were protected by civil rights legislation during the 1960s, the rights of individuals with disabilities were not protected. But various events and legislation led to what would become ADA.

Following are some events and statutes reported by www.adata.org that influenced the ADA's enactment:

  • The first of the major civil rights statutes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin. Although it had a broad scope, it did not protect individuals with disabilities. However, it established the statutory foundation on which the ADA was created.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected the rights of minorities to vote in elections.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1968—also known as the Fair Housing Act—prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin and sex in the sale and rental of housing. In 1988, it was amended to protect people with disabilities.
  • The first piece of legislation to offer some protection to people with disabilities, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination on the basis of a disability toward "otherwise qualified" people with disabilities by recipients of federal financial assistance. However, it did not protect from discrimination by employers, public accommodations in the private sector, publicly funded programs and those providing federal financial assistance.
  • The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA) required that buildings constructed or modified by the U.S., leased by the federal government, or financed by federal grants or loans be designed and constructed to offer access to individuals with disabilities. Although ABA was initially ineffective and poorly enforced, it established the foundation for later progress regarding accessibility.
  • The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, or Access Board, was established in 1973 and consists of the heads of 12 federal agencies and 13 public members, the majority of whom are people with disabilities. As it became stronger, it became a key federal agency and established design and scoping standards for facilities covered by ABA, Section 504 and ADA.
  • The antidiscrimination policies of the Civil Rights Movement and the rights of individuals with disabilities finally were joined together with the establishment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although it was narrower in its coverage—not mandating compliance with nondiscrimination requirements by employers or public accommodations in the private sector—Section 504 prohibited discrimination on the basis of a disability toward "otherwise qualified" people with disabilities by recipients of federal financial assistance.
  • In 1975, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and PL 94-142) was passed to ensure that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
  • In 1977, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued regulations implementing Section 504.
  • When the Reagan administration tried to weaken Section 504 and PL 94-142, a coalition of people gathered to successfully protect the legislation.
  • The Air Carriers Act passed in 1986 and protected individuals with disabilities from discrimination when using air transportation.
  • Recognizing a need for a comprehensive law that requires equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, the National Council on Disability drafted the first version of ADA, which was introduced in Congress in 1988. A second version was introduced in May 1989, and further amendments were passed by the Senate Sept. 7, 1989. The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill May 22, 1990, and the final ADA passed in mid-July.
  • On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law. It was the largest such signing ceremony in history, with 3,000 disability rights advocates, members of Congress and the administration attending.

Although individuals with disabilities were not directly affected by the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, the struggle for equality by blacks and women are said to have inspired people with disabilities to fight for their own rights during the Disability Rights Movement. Both movements worked to eradicate discrimination and social devaluation, and the actions of those involved have helped to form a society that truly values equality.


This Web exclusive information is a supplement to Redefining disabled.

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