How the Americans With Disabilities Act changed the world

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is an opportunity to spotlight people with disabilities and reflect on the improvements that have been made (and still need to be made) to alleviate unnecessary hardships and create equality.

One of the biggest milestones for people with disabilities was the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which was enacted in 1990.

How the ADA started

To fully appreciate the changes brought about when the ADA was enacted, it’s important to understand the discrimination, hardships and barriers people with disabilities experienced before.

For instance, in 1867 many cities, including Chicago, Omaha, San Francisco and Portland, OR, enacted what was known as “ugly laws.” In the words of Chicago’s law, it was illegal for people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” to be seen in public. If people with deformities or disabilities were caught out in public, they were subject to arrest and monetary fines.

The last arrest was in Omaha in 1974 when a police officer arrested a man who had “visible marks and scars” on his body. The charges were dropped because prosecutors could not prove if someone was “ugly” or not in a court of law. After that, “ugly laws” around the country were quickly repealed.

Even after it was no longer illegal to be in public, people with disabilities faced segregation and discrimination by society because there were no accommodations made for them to be able to access public buildings, sidewalks, restrooms, or public transportation.

Borrowing strategies from the Civil Rights Movement, the disability community and their allies held sit-ins at Health, Education & Welfare (now called Health & Human Services) buildings across the U.S. They blocked buses that didn’t accommodate wheelchair users. They kept and shared “disability diaries,” in which they recorded all the ways in which they were excluded from society because of their disability. They lobbied representatives and senators and testified in front of Congress.

Creation of The Americans With Disabilities Act

All of these efforts culminated in the creation of The Americans With Disabilities Act, which was introduced into Congress in 1988, and enacted in 1990.

Since the ADA was passed, facilities are now designed with flat or ramp entrances. Sidewalks have curb cuts and ramps. Buses, trains and other modes of public transportation are accessible to people who use wheelchairs or have hearing or vision impairments.

For people with hearing impairments, closed captioning is now widely available in TV shows and movies. And public facilities are required to offer sign language interpretation or other means of communication designed for the hard of hearing.

Braille signage is required in restrooms, conference rooms, classrooms, and shared public spaces for people who are visually impaired.

The ADA has also banned discrimination against people with disabilities and has given them equal access to educational and employment opportunities.

People also have better access to healthcare because of the ADA

Healthcare facilities are more accessible, signage has improved, and the healthcare community has become more informed about how to best care for people with disabilities.

The changes made because of the ADA have not only impacted the U.S.; it has impacted countries around the world. Since 2000, at least 181 countries have passed disability civil rights laws similar to the ADA.

While there are still improvements to be made, the changes the ADA has brought about are a hopeful sign of what can happen when we work together to make our society equal, open, and accessible to all.




Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant