In 2000, to mark the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Disability Rights Center of Maine gathered about 30 Mainers with disabilities and sent them out to get a sense of how much had changed. Center director Kim Moody said some themes emerged from their reports, mostly centered on accessibility. It turned out that hardware stores, banks, convenience stores and movie theaters generally were not accessible to people in wheelchairs and those with other disabilities. The center sent many businesses letters seeking compliance with the law’s “readily achievable” standard, and in some cases, brought lawsuits.
But one case stands out in Ms. Moody’s memory. The owner of a restaurant in Freeport, she said, continued to balk at complying. After six months of conflict, the owner relented. “I finally got it,” he told Ms. Moody. Not being accessible to people with disabilities, he realized, “was akin to putting a sign on the door that said ‘no blacks allowed,’” and he wanted no part of that sentiment. That analogy was appropriate, because the ADA was very much a civil rights law.
This month, the ADA marks its 20th anniversary.
Ms. Moody, who herself lives with a disability, has been advocating for those with disabilities for 24 years. She remembers TV news images of people in wheelchairs chaining themselves to the doors of businesses and offices to demonstrate their need for accessibility. Yet despite some complaints about what the ADA would cost businesses and public institutions, the law passed with strong bipartisan support. Then-President George H.W. Bush signed it into law, saying at the ceremony, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Before the ADA, it was easy to discriminate against those with disabilities, Ms. Moody remembers, especially in employment and housing. One can imagine the paternalistic, perhaps well-intentioned rationale of some business owner, telling a woman who had to use a cane to walk that she couldn’t work as a cashier because of the long hours of standing. The ADA requires businesses to provide a “reasonable accommodation” in such instances; in this case, the cashier would be given a stool.
In the early years after passage, the struggle focused on physical accessibility issues. Later, understanding other disabilities expanded the public’s mind. In those first years, courts often sided with businesses fighting the ADA’s mandates, and the law began to shrink. But that trend was reversed, and in 2008, the ADA Amendments Act passed, reaffirming the intent.
Some business advocates still may see the ADA as overly burdensome. Ms. Moody disagrees. “People with disabilities work very hard,” she said, to overcome perceptions that they are limited. While some private attorneys have taken up cases of people with dubious disabilities and asserted ri-diculous claims, she said the disability rights centers around the country have been careful to fight real injustices. Very few people abuse the law, she said.
The ADA was an important step in removing barriers for a segment of the population that wants to work and live full, active lives.