Some 30 years after it was enacted, the Americans with Disabilities Act has become a part of everyday life.
Wheelchair ramps on buildings; lifts on public transit; lowered drinking fountains; wheelchair-accessible toilet stalls; ATMs marked with Braille; closed captioning on TV shows — each of these acts of inclusion can be traced to the moment President George H.W. Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” as he signed the ADA into law in 1990.
Equally important is the law’s provision against employment discrimination toward those with disabilities, which has opened the door for gainful employment by millions of Americans who otherwise might be passed over during the hiring process.
The final version of the bill had broad support in Congress, passing the House by a 377-28 vote and the Senate 91-6. But the road to improving access for all Americans was difficult.
Critics claimed that retrofitting buildings and public accommodations would be prohibitively costly. And religious groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals argued that employment provisions were “an improper intrusion (of) the federal government.”
As Dave Kelly, former executive director of the local Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities recently told The Columbian: “It was pretty controversial, actually. I can’t think of a better way to spend money than to help people who are struggling with daily life.”
That has been the crux of the Americans with Disabilities Act — improving the daily lives of citizens for whom a sidewalk curb or a standard bathroom stall can be a barrier. The act has allowed more Americans to make use of their abilities rather than being hampered by their disabilities.
In the process, the ADA also has provided benefits for employers. It has expanded the labor pool, adding qualified candidates who previously would have been rejected because of physical barriers in the workplace.
And it has expanded the consumer market; if somebody in a wheelchair cannot access a retail outlet, they are not going to shop there. As Paula Morgan wrote last week for Forbes: “According to a 2018 report published by Accenture, companies that prioritized the inclusion of individuals with disabilities were four times more likely to outperform their competitors in shareholder returns, and have, on average 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher profit margins.” Inclusion is not just a moral imperative, it makes good business sense.
Yet while the Americans with Disabilities Act has been significant, work remains. “It isn’t perfect, and there’s still a lot of roadblocks, but our society has adapted the ADA in a meaningful way,” Kelly said. “Do we need to do more? Absolutely. Do we need to focus on people with mental health disabilities? Absolutely.”
Most important, perhaps, is the role that the ADA has played in changing public perception. Wheelchair ramps and lifts are now common, barely given a second thought by the able-bodied. Those advancements have allowed people with disabilities to participate more fully in public life, helping to ease any stigma that existed in the minds of others.
The success and the importance of that development is evident throughout the world, with more than 180 nations passing similar laws in the wake of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When lawmakers found common ground 30 years ago in passing the legislation, they improved the lives of all Americans, not only those with disabilities.