Americans with Disabilities Act

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) represents the most comprehensive civil rights law in a generation. Based on Congress’ finding that people with disabilities have been “subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness,” its purpose is to extend to people with disabilities the same legal protections against discrimination available to women and racial and religious minorities under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The ADA outlaws discrimination in public and private employment, public services, transportation, communications technology and public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, stores, museums, etc.).

The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable modifications in facilities and equipment (depending on the size and resources of the employer) that will enable people with disabilities to perform their jobs. In addition, the Act prohibits private businesses from discrimination against customers with disabilities and requires them to build all new buildings in an accessible manner. The ADA requires private businesses to provide modifications that will enable people with disabilities to enjoy the goods and services being offered.

Under the protection of the ADA, millions of disabled people can now seek legal recourse. A United Cerebral Palsy Association study showed that 96% of a sample of disabled Americans surveyed said the ADA had made a positive difference in their lives.

Evidence of the Americans with Disabilities Act is everywhere: handicap parking spaces, Braille instructions on ATM’s, and ramps built into sidewalks. The ACLU continues to fight for the civil rights of disabled Americans.

Despite ample proof that the ADA is working, people with disabilities are still, far too often, treated as second class citizens, shunned and segregated by physical barriers and social stereotypes. They are discriminated against in employment, schools, and housing, robbed of their personal autonomy, sometimes even hidden away and forgotten by the larger society. Many people with disabilities continue to be excluded from the American dream.

Besides the two major Supreme Court decisions of 1998, people with disabilities and their advocates have won other important legal victories. The ACLU has helped many individuals claim their rights:

    • The right to enter the courthouse: Betty Livingston of North Carolina has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. In 1996 she won her ADA claim against the local courthouse for refusing to allow her to use the only wheelchair accessible door into and out of the courtroom because it was “reserved” for lawyers and court personnel.
    • Ending discrimination in professional licensing: In 1994, four young law graduates successfully charged that the Florida State Bar application, which required the disclosure of information about any mental health treatment that applicants received at any point in their lives, violated the ADA.
    • A non-discriminatory drug test for an athlete and cancer survivor: In 1994, Kevin Hall, a survivor of testicular cancer, successfully invoked the ADA to challenge the Olympic Committee’s decision to ban him from sailing. The ban was based on the fact that he tested positive for externally administered testosterone, which did not actually enhance his performance, but which was critical to his survival.
    • The right to serve on a jury: In 1993, James Bradley Quinn, a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas, brought a successful ADA challenge to a state law requiring the exclusion of deaf people from jury service. At the hearing in federal court, Quinn said through an American Sign Language interpreter that, “The deaf and hard-of-hearing should never accept limitations on their goals.”
    • Public parks cannot discriminate: In 1994, Eddie Dzura, a 33-year-old man who has Down syndrome, was asked a series of humiliating questions in front of a crowd of amusement park patrons. He was then refused admission to a merry-go-round because he had a mental disability. He and his father filed a successful lawsuit under the ADA, and the park was forced to change its discriminatory practice.
    • Obesity not a job disqualification: In 1993, Bonnie Cook, who was denied state employment solely because of her obesity, was victorious in her case against the state of Rhode Island. A federal appeals court concluded: “In a society that all too often confuses ‘slim’ with ‘beautiful’ or ‘good,’ morbid obesity can present formidable barriers to employment… this is exactly the sort of employment decision that the Rehabilitation Act seeks to banish.”
    • The  right to fair housing: In 1990 the Fairfield, Connecticut Town Council rejected Lucie McKinney’s application to open a residence for homeless people with AIDS. She decided to fight back and won her lawsuit charging that the town had violated the ADA and the Fair Housing Act.

For more detailed information about the ADA, including all related Supreme Court decisions, visit the Center for An Accessible Society website.