ADA: A Historic Legacy

The front page of September 1990 PN's feature story "ADA is Signed!"

26 years of PN Magazine covering ADA

It was 26 years ago this month that then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) act.

Today, there are numerous accessible options for travel, living and employment.  However, it took a great deal of trial and error to get to where we are today. Activists, including readers, fought hard for many years to have this type of legislation on the table of the president. Progress has been made and doors have been opened thanks to the ADA, but there is still more work to do.

As we remember this historic legislation and the change that has occurred, take a look back at the original article posted in the September 1990 issue of PN.

Another Wall Tumbles: ADA Is Signed!

By Lee Page

On July 26, 1990, on the South Lawn of the White House, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Over 3,000 people witnessed the ceremony, including many of the people with disabilities who had worked diligently to pass this historic legislation. 

Pres. Bush spoke of a new era of equality and independence for people with disabilities, recognizing that they had been victims of segregation and discrimination. “… Now I sign legislation that takes a sledgehammer to another wall — one that has, for too many generations, separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls, claiming together we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America …. I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say, 'Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.' God bless you all."

The president made a point of urging the business community to take advantage of the "tremendous pool of people who will bring to jobs diversity, loyalty, proven low turnover rate, and only one request — the chance to prove themselves.

Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (left, D-MD) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) were the bill's principal sponsors.

Barbara Bush was also on the dais, as were Vice President Dan Quayle; Evan Kemp, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and Justin Dart, chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

After the ceremony, a celebration picnic was held on the Ellipse, just across the street from the White House. There the crowd heard from the vice president, sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.), champions of the ADA in the Senate, and from Reps. Steny Hoyer (D- MD), Major Owens (D-N.Y.), Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), Steve Bartlett (R-Texas), Norm Mineta (D-Calif.), and Jack Brooks (D-Texas). Tony Coelho, the original sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, congratulated congressmen and public alike for their tremendous efforts in working together for its passage.

A last battle had been fought over the report issued by the Conference Committee of House and Senate representatives. Only after last-minute negotiations and compromise amendments offered by senators Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) did the bill pass both the House and the Senate. The substitute amendment offered by Sen. Hatch settled the controversy over the Chapman (food handlers) Amendment. The final version permits an employer to remove a person from a food-handling position if that person has a disease determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to be transmissible through food handling. This was satisfactory to a majority of both chambers, and the bill was passed by the House on July 12 and by the Senate on the morning of July 13.

Sen. Harkin spoke eloquently on the Senate floor in support of final passage of the ADA. "Today we say 'no' to fear, 'no' to ignorance, 'no' to prejudice. ADA is the twentieth-century Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities. Today, the U.S. Senate will say to Americans with disabilities, 'The days of segregation and inequality are over. And by winning your full civil rights, you strengthen ours.'"

ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people in employment, transportation, public accommodations, activities of state and local government, and telecommunications. Previously, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 banned discrimination by programs and organizations receiving federal funds, including federal agencies. In many aspects, ADA is patterned after Section 504 and expands these protections into almost all areas of the private sector.

ADA is much changed from its original form, through negotiations with the administration and markups in the one Senate and four House committees it has passed through since May 9, 1989. The law is future-oriented, in that it requires that buildings and transportation will be designed and constructed for accessibility. For the most part, retrofit is not required. Only in places of public accommodation, if it can be done inexpensively, will a business be required to remove existing physical barriers.

The ADA definition of disability is identical to that of Section 504, except the ADA removes coverage of people who are currently using illegal drugs. Included are those who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, those who have a record of such impairment, or those who are regarded as having such an impairment. The definition was deliberately created as a generic, functional one, rather than a list of all possible disabilities.

Employment opportunities will be greatly expanded under this new law. An employer may no longer refuse to hire a person with a disability because of the disability, if that person is qualified to perform the job. Reasonable accommodations, unless they cause an undue hard- ship on the business, must be made for a disabled employee. A General Accounting Office report states that under Section 504, reasonable accommodations have cost little. Often only a move of furniture, an adjustment in hours, the purchase of new phone or computer equipment, or the construction of a ramp is necessary. An employer may not ask an applicant if he/she has a disability but may inquire as to the person's ability to perform job-related functions.

This section of the ADA does not take effect until 1992 for employers with 25 or more employees and until 1994 for businesses with 15 or more employees. Companies with fewer than 15 employees will not be affected by this section.

Many battles were fought over the transportation provisions, and the ADA will have a visible impact in this area. As of Aug 26, 1990, it is illegal for a public- transportation authority to purchase or lease a new bus that is not accessible. Lift-equipped buses are about 5% more expensive than those without lifts. Transit agencies are not required to retrofit currently used buses that do not have lifts.

New rail cars ordered after Aug 26 must be usable by people with disabilities; within five years, one car per train must be accessible. Because rail cars have a greater life span than do city buses, total accessibility will take much longer. Key existing commuter rail stations and any new stations must comply. AMTRAK and other intercity rail stations must be accessible within 20 years.

Intercity bus lines, such as Trailways, will also have to change. The Office of Technology Assessment will determine the most feasible means of making these vehicles accessible. All new buses ordered after July 1996 must be wheelchair-accessible.

Public accommodation is defined as the type of business used every day (e.g., hotels, restaurants, theaters, grocery stores, and schools). On a day-to-day basis, access is critical. People with disabilities can no longer be excluded from or refused service at such businesses. The ADA requires, as of Jan 26, 1992, that all new places of public accommodation be accessible. Buildings now housing such facilities must make physical changes, if it is not difficult or expensive to do so.

Because of the ADA, American society will change. The change will not occur overnight and will often be reflected as a difference in attitude rather than in structure. But the change will occur. As Pres. Bush stated prior to signing the ADA, "This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, and the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream."

All this is our future. 


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