Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed on July 26, 1990.  Thousands of people in the disability rights movement worked for years to earn the right to enjoy full integration into society.  Arlene Mayerson wrote “The History of the Americans with Disabilities Act – A Movement Perspective” which is published on the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund website.  Download the PDF A Movement Perspective.

In March of 1990, more than 1000 protestors went to Washington to urge Congress to approve the measure.  The “Capital Crawl” was when more than 60 activists abandoning their crutches and wheelchairs and drawled up the stone steps of the Capitol. This added attention and political pressure led to Congress passing the act within 4 months, and President George H. W. Bush signing it into law.

The act outlawed discrimination based on physical or mental disability in employment and ensured access to buildings and public and private transportation.

The ADA is so important today that most Independent Living Centers celebrate annually.  Each celebration is a time to reflect on advances, and current barriers.  Scroll down for reflections from the 20th and 25 anniversaries.


Employment (Title I)

Business must provide reasonable accommodations to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment. This may include changes such as restructuring jobs, redesigning or altering the layout of workstations, or modifying/adapting equipment. Employment aspects may include the application process, hiring, wages, benefits, and all other aspects of employment. Medical examinations are highly regulated. Title I complaints must be filed with the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the date of discrimination, or 300 days if the charge is filed with a designated state or local fair employment practice agency. Individuals may file a lawsuit in federal court only after they receive a “right-to-sue” letter from the EEOC.

Public Services (Title II)

Public transportation systems, such as public transit buses, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Public services, which include state and local government instrumentalities, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and other commuter authorities, cannot deny services to people with disabilities participation in programs or activities which are available to people without disabilities. Complaints of Title II violations may be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice within 180 days of the date of discrimination. The Department may bring a lawsuit where it has investigated a matter and has been unable to resolve violations. Title II may also be enforced through private lawsuits in federal court. It is not necessary to file a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) or any other federal agency, or to receive a “right-to-sue” letter, before going to court.

Public Accommodations (Title III)

All new construction and modifications must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For existing facilities, barriers to services must be removed if readily achievable. Public accommodations include facilities such as restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, retail stores, etc., as well as privately owned transportation systems. Complaints of Title III violations may be filed with the Department of Justice. The Department is authorized to bring a lawsuit where there is a pattern or practice of discrimination in violation of Title III, or where an act of discrimination raises an issue of general public importance. Title III may also be enforced through private lawsuits. It is not necessary to file a complaint with the Department of Justice (or any Federal agency), or to receive a “right-to-sue” letter, before going to court.

Telecommunications (Title IV)

Telecommunications companies offering telephone service to the general public must have telephone relay service to individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTYs) or similar devices.

Miscellaneous (Title V)

Includes a provision prohibiting either (a) coercing or threatening or (b) retaliating against the disabled or those attempting to aid people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA. Defined as “disabled” if he or she meets at The ADA’s protection applies primarily to “disabled” individuals. An individual is least any one of the following tests: He or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities; He or she has a record of such an impairment; or he or she is regarded as having such an impairment. Other individuals who are protected in certain circumstances include 1) those, such as parents, who have an association with an individual known to have a disability, and 2) those who are coerced or subjected to retaliation for assisting people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA. While the employment provisions of the ADA apply to employers of fifteen employees or more, its public accommodations provisions apply to all sizes of business, regardless of number of employees. State and local governments are covered regardless of size.

Americans with Disabilities Act: 20 years later

In 2010, Paul Spooner and other local advocates were interviewed by Chris Bergeron for the Milford Daily News. Visit the to read the whole article. We have copied it below.

Looking back 20 years, Paul Spooner remembers how difficult it was to drive his wheelchair on sidewalks before curb cuts were installed, or to shop at malls before parking spaces were reserved for people with disabilities. The 55-year-old executive director of MetroWest Center for Independent Living will be among thousands celebrating today, the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

Looking back 20 years, Paul Spooner remembers how difficult it was to drive his wheelchair on sidewalks before curb cuts were installed, or to shop at malls before parking spaces were reserved for people with disabilities.

The 55-year-old executive director of MetroWest Center for Independent Living will be among thousands celebrating today, the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

“Before 1990, if disabled people couldn’t find suitable housing, it was perfectly legal for the state to put them in a nursing home or institution,” Spooner said from his Irving Street office in Framingham. “The ADA helped the public understand people with disabilities have a right to live in the community.”

Spooner called the ADA “probably one of the last, great nonpartisan laws to come out of Washington, D.C.” Signed by President George Bush, it prohibits, under specific conditions, discrimination based on disability. Passed in Congress with near unanimous support, it defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.”

“In the last 20 years, the ADA opened lots of doors to jobs and housing and ensured access to services. The heart of the ADA was to outlaw discrimination in our society against people with disabilities,” Spooner said.

Spooner, whose muscular atrophy limits his mobility, has used a wheelchair since he was 7 years old.

“I use it,” he said emphatically. “I’m not ‘confined’ to it like people used to say.”

While the law and later amendments have provided far-reaching benefits, Spooner cautioned, “Some people still have an attitude that stigmatizes people with disabilities by suggesting they’re less capable than others and get preferential treatment.”

Officials at several state organizations working with people with disabilities largely agreed the ADA has achieved many of its goals, but they worry the recession could slow down progress.

At the Massachusetts Office on Disability, Chief Counsel Barbara Lybarger said, “There’s been steady progress … but there’s still work to be done.”

Created in 1981 as the state’s advocacy agency, the office on disability’s primary mission is “to ensure access” for people with disabilities.

“When we started in 1990, the biggest focus was on removing physical barriers. The biggest concern now is providing accessibility to jobs and affordable housing,” she said.

As the state copes with budget shortfalls, Lybarger said Gov. Deval Patrick has pledged “to be sensitive to the needs of the disabled by taking a more surgical approach to cuts so no particular area is hit more than others.”

While enforcement of the ADA has reduced the most blatant types of discrimination, Lybarger said, “Things are more subtle now.”

“That’s a kind of progress. People with disabilities are in the door in most instances. Now we’re focused on what happens once they get inside,” she said.

Joan Sherizen, chairwoman of Natick’s Commission on Disability for nine of the 16 years she’s served, said “gentle persuasion” has frequently convinced restaurants, stores and other businesses to make entrances, restrooms and aisles accessible to wheelchair users.

She credited the town for constructing wheelchair ramps at the beach and skating rink but said it should install more curb cuts so people in wheelchairs can travel on the sidewalks.

Sherizen, who is hard of hearing, said the commission is studying the possibility of using money it receives from handicapped parking violations to refurbish or build a “totally accessible playground.”

Oce Harrison, director of the New England ADA Center, described the ADA as “a broad, amazing law that has done so much for so many people.”

“We still have a long way to go in the spectrum of services,” she said.

As the recession continues, Harrison said Department of Labor data showed people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as others, and people with disabilities have a significantly higher rate of “under-employment.”

While many housing providers have embraced the spirit of ADA, Harrison said others merely want to know “What do I have to do?”

“Some are still not interested in what’s the best practice. They just want to know what’s the bottom line they can get away with,” she said.

Since 1990, Pat Winske and John Usinas have served 20 years on Marlborough’s Commission on Disabilities. He was the first chairman, and she holds the position now.

Working with members and town officials, they succeeded in making all floors of City Hall accessible and waged a protracted battle to make sidewalks suitably level for wheelchair users.

Using money from $100 fines for parking in handicapped zones, the commission equipped several traffic lights with audio devices to help people with vision problems cross streets safely and designated $15,000 to send children with disabilities to summer camp.

Now engaged, Winske and Usinas say living with their own disabilities strengthened their resolve to fight for full implementation of the ADA.

A Marlborough native, Winske was pushing for access for children with disabilities more than 20 years before ADA became law.

She has used a wheelchair since childhood as a result of muscular dystrophy. Usinas, also a Marlborough native, was blinded in a 1973 motorcycle accident.

In 1967 Winske convinced town officials to install the first elevator in Kane Elementary School so her three children with disabilities could move safely from floor to floor.

Usinas said the ADA has prompted “significant improvements” for people in town with disabilities. Both he and Winske credited Marlborough government and City Council for “working with the commission from the beginning.”

“I think Marlborough has been a leader on disability rights and access,” Winske said.

But both said the fight for full access goes on.

A client advocate for the Commission for the Blind in Worcester, Usinas said, “We need more housing in Marlborough for people with disabilities. There’s a wait of two or three years for wheelchair-accessible units in public subsidized housing.”

He said increasing accessible public transportation remains “one of the biggest issues.” He hopes MetroWest Regional Transit Authority expands it services to provide “curb to curb” pickups during weekends.

In Framingham, Karen Foran Dempsey juggles her dual responsibilities of being chairwoman of the town’s Disability Commission and raising her twin 4-year-old sons.

Diagnosed as a child with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she gets around on a motorized scooter. She can remember several years ago when the only way to attend selectmen meetings in the Memorial Building was to enter through a rear door with a ramp and then use an “antique” lift – not an elevator – to get to the second floor.

Foran Dempsey gives Framingham good marks for moving ahead with a $300,000 project to improve accessibility to the Memorial Building by modernizing an elevator and building a wheelchair ramp to the Union Avenue entrance.

After “a little encouragement from the disability committee,” she said the town installed “simple fixes,” such as improved hand rails and Braille signs in the Memorial Building.

She credited the town for significantly improving access to the relocated senior center but is “a little disappointed” it’s installing a wheelchair ramp on the side of Village Hall rather than in front. “Eventually, we hope to get a ramp on the front,” she said.

Foran Dempsey noted specialists have estimated about 20 percent of Americans are born with or will develop disabilities. She stressed people with disabilities aren’t looking for “breaks” or special treatment that will raise taxes or hurt local businesses.

“We want to be active members of the community,” she said. “When a government building, restaurant or business becomes accessible, it’s opening itself up to 46 million people with disabilities. If you make it accessible, we will come.”

25 Years After the ADA

Woman in wheelchair who fought for Disabilities Act can’t use tour bus
by Petula Dvorak, July 20, 2015, for the Washington Post ( link to the Washington Post, or copied below)

Even before she arrives in the nation’s capital this weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Dot Nary is already in what she calls fight mode.

Because when your legs are wheels, getting around is always a bumpy ride fraught with obstacles.

From the moment she gets to the airport, makes her way onto a plane, hails a taxi, rolls into a hotel or visits a restaurant, Nary, 59, is faced with the many ways the man-made U.S. landscape is still inhospitable to those with disabilities.

No, the squishy seat cushion she needs to prevent pressure ulcers is not a weapon to be stored away on takeoff.

No, the trend of super-high hotel beds does not work for getting in and out of a wheelchair.

And, no, you can’t advertise that all your tour buses welcome wheelchairs, then be magically booked for days on end to the one person in a wheelchair trying to make a reservation.

This is the state of America — a country where about 38 million people have a serious disability — a quarter-century after passage of a landmark civil rights law that was supposed to make their lives easier. But as Nary and others with disabilities can tell you, it hasn’t always worked out that way.

Born with spina bifida, Nary was confined to a wheelchair when she was 30, just as the disabilities rights movement was gaining momentum. She fought for the passage of the ADA in 1990 and was at the White House when the act’s fifth anniversary was celebrated.

An assistant research professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, she has spent the past 25 years advocating for the independent living movement, helping people with disabilities find ways to navigate not only physical barriers, but also ethical quandaries.

The ADA is responsible for curb cuts, ramps, Braille lettering and lifts on city buses, among thousands of other changes. But the stories you hear about the law usually have more to do with businesses and governments kvetching about the cost of compliance, rather than the hundreds of thousands of places still inaccessible to folks who move differently than the majority.

Think that’s not the case? Check out this subway map of New York City, rendered to show only the stations that have wheelchair accessibility. It looked as sparse as the scalp under Donald Trump’s comb-over.

Cases of noncompliance are mountains to climb nearly every day, Nary said. She doesn’t need a graphic to tell her that.

That’s where the ethical dilemmas come in. How often should those with disabilities fight when they come to a roadblock?

“You have to know your rights. These aren’t random, insignificant events. Sometimes, these are health issues,” she said.

“But it’s just as important to know you can’t live in ‘fight mode,’ ” she said.

“You can’t spend your life filing complaints,” Nary said. “Usually, if it’s a mom and pop store, I’ll educate them, but leave it there. Some buildings were built so long ago.”

“But if it’s a big chain or something national, they know better,” she said.

Her latest fight is with a tour bus company.

Planning her trip to Washington for a conference and the ADA celebration, Nary called OnBoard — a big outfit that runs tours across the country — to book one of Washington for herself and the grad student working with her, who also uses a wheelchair.

Turns out, she can’t.

Though OnBoard writes on its Web site that its regular buses are not wheelchair-accessible, it also promises that it can line one up if tourists call ahead of time. But Nary found that was not case.

This is how her phone call went, she said.

Nary: I’d like to make reservations for three people, two of us use wheelchairs.

OnBoard: Oh, we don’t have a bus for you.

Nary: It says you do on the Web site.

OnBoard: Oh, we lease our buses.

Nary: But you are still required to have lifts.

Tom Schmidt, chief executive of OnBoard, said that the company leases the buses it uses for tours, and that’s the reason the agent told Nary that the buses don’t need to be wheelchair-accessible.

“However, we always offer customers the opportunity to take the tour on a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, if we can obtain one for the tour. Usually, that takes a couple days’ advance notice,” he said. “Many of our customers are veterans who are in wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, etc., and we frequently accommodate persons with those situations.”

But Nary said she gave OnBoard plenty of advance notice and that her request was met with indifference.

For her, on an anniversary the whole country should be marking, it was a sobering reminder of all the ways ADA compliance continues to fall short. “We still,” she said, “have a long way to go.”