ADA History


In cities throughout the United States, people with disabilities began to challenge social and physical barriers that excluded them from their communities, and parents of children with disabilities began to fight against segregation of their children. Thousands of people banned together to form the disabilities rights movement. Over the last several decades, the disabilities rights movement has made the injustices faced by people with disabilities visible
to the American public and the politicians. Much of this movement’s strategies were adopted by its predecessor—the civil rights movement of African-Americans who brought injustice to the courts.

The next step was to motivate politicians to enact a civil rights law that would protect people with disabilities fromdiscrimination. But how could this be possible when there were so many diverse disabilities?


One of the main problems lawmakers had to confront was to find commonalities for people with diverse disabilities. Previously, it had been assumed that the exclusion and segregation of people with disabilities were the result of the physical and mental limitations of the disability itself. In 1973, a historic disability public policy occurred with the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 recognized that although there are differences in disabilities, people with disabilities as a group faced similar discrimination in employment, education and access to society, and as a legitimate minority deserved basic civil rights protection. This Act applied only to those entities that received Federal funds. This “class status” concept has been critical in the development of the movement and advocates” efforts.


For the next four years, the disabilities rights movement grew in skill and visibility. It was not enough to remove policy barriers, it was essential that the regulations were effective in removing architectural and communication barriers. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) had been assigned to promote the regulations that were needed to implement Section 504. HEW was in no hurry. Now the disabilities rights movement rose up throughout the country to protest in the form of rallies and sit-ins. The longest sit-in was in San Francisco, lasting 28 days. We can only imagine the physical, mental and emotional pain incurred by the people with disabilities who were determined to be heard.

Representatives from the disabilities community met with Congressional committee members, testimonies were given, lawsuits were filed and letters were written, and finally on May 4, 1977, Section 504 regulations were issued. The struggle was far from over. It became clear to the disability community that they needed to play an active role in thwarting attempts to de-regulate Section 504.

During the 1980’s their efforts were focused on reinstating civil rights protection which had been stripped away by negative Supreme Court decisions.


The first version, introduced in 1988, went through numerous drafts, negotiations and amendments. The disabilities rights advocates had the job of demonstrating to Congress and to the American people, the need for comprehensive civil rights protection to eliminate injustice and to demonstrate how this injustice not only harms the individual being discriminated against, but also how it harms our society as a whole. They also had the job of negotiating among themselves to find the best possible accommodations that would include all disabilities. It was no easy task to agree to speak with one voice.

Bush_signs_in_ADA_of_1990Finally on July 26, 1990, George H.W. Bush, signed the Act into a powerful and far-reaching disabilities rights law. It provides civil rights protection to individuals with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations and telecommunications. It impacts society as a whole, not just limited to age, race or sex discrimination.


There is still work to be done. We find that even in our own communities, the law is not being upheld. In most instances, it is just a matter of reminding businesses and municipalities about the law and recommending solutions. The disabilities rights movement must continue when injustices are found or are being ignored. What can we do? We can start by alerting our ADA Coordinators, politicians, and businesses when we find a violation of the law, and we can also join advocacy organizations, such as ADAOCAN.