United Spinal Association is proud to be a part of the legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark civil rights law that protects wheelchair users and other people with disabilities from discrimination.
July 26th marks the anniversary of the ADA. On this date in 1990 there were over 1,000 wheelchair users and other people with disabilities on the White House lawn as President George H. W. Bush signed the milestone legislation into law.
The ADA created a collective consciousness about discrimination on the basis of disability. The nondisabled public, the media and elected officials could not identify unnecessary segregation and special treatment for people with disabilities as discrimination so the law provided behavioral guidance. Most importantly, the ADA borrowed from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which defined discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance as the failure by an employer or potential employer, proprietor of a place open to the public, or an entity of state or local government, to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities.
Until the ADA, (with the exception of the Rehabilitation Act, which was a largely unknown and unenforced statute) “nondiscrimination” meant refraining from treating those in protected classes worse than everyone else. ADA made it a discriminatory practice not to reasonably accommodate disability, that is, without taking on excessive financial or administrative burdens.
It became a discriminatory practice not to hire a person because of their disability or because of the need to make reasonable accommodation. The failure to act (i.e., to accommodate) became a discriminatory practice.
Media and elected officials changed in response to ADA. Politically correct language and behavior developed over the last 25 years but despite ADA’s mandates, actual change requires advocacy, both personal and organizational, and ADA has been the tool most often used by activists to seek redress of grievances and institutional reform.
The most obvious change brought about by ADA is in building design and public transportation. State building codes have incorporated the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and access to new construction is a guarantee.
As a result of United Spinal Association’s pre-ADA litigation the two oldest, largest rail systems in the USA, NYC’s and Philadelphia’s, were to be made accessible, and all new buses had to be accessible. Moreover, a paratransit system for those who cannot use accessible mass transit had to be made available in those cities. The NYC and Philadelphia settlement agreements became the framework for the transportation provisions of the ADA. Over the past two decades a new generation of transit managers has embraced the responsibility to provide meaningful transportation to people with disabilities.
United Spinal has used ADA in transit cases, polling place access disputes, taxi cases, employment cases and in a landmark curb ramp case in which NYC committed well over $200 million to finish curb ramp installation on all NYC streets. During the 1990s we sued arenas and stadiums until they abandoned design schemes that provided little accessible seating, or seating in undesirable locations, and ticketing policies that made it impossible to sit with family and friends.
We have used ADA to fight for integration, to the maximum extent feasible, for those with disabilities because, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in Olmstead, a case which required the states to provide care and shelter in the community when possible and not in institutions, “unjustified isolation of individuals with disabilities is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.”
United Spinal represents more than a million individuals throughout the country with spinal cord injuries and disorders. Throughout our history, we have devoted our energies, talents and programs to improving the quality of life for these Americans and for advancing their independence.
And the ADA provides the platform to fight for our rights. We hope you join us in continuing to strengthen the ADA for future generations.
To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, download United Spinal Association’s free resource booklet: Understanding the ADA.