Happy 30th Anniversary, Americans with Disabilities Act!

Happy 30th Anniversary. Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush spoke to 2,000 people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to officially sign the Americans’ with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. His words compared the moment to the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous November:

“I sign legislation which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one which has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls for claiming together that we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America.”

While the road since has been bumpy, the ADA was—and remains—landmark legislation intended to eliminate disability-based discrimination in employment, education, transportation and most every aspect of public life. In its own words, the mission of the ADA is “to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency to persons with disabilities.” No matter what, that’s an anniversary worth celebrating. (I invite you to check out the personal celebrations throughout social media with the ADA National Networks’ #ThanksToTheADA campaign.)

Scorecard. So are the ADA’s successes. Unlike other civil rights statutes, the ADA is a voluntary compliance law without reporting requirements. Therefore, statistics are difficult to come by. However, the Census Bureau estimated in 2017 that the ADA provides rights and protections for more than 56.7 million Americans—or roughly 19% of the non-institutionalized population. In addition, a 1996 United Cerebral Palsy Association survey revealed that 81% of disabled individuals believed that the ADA made a positive difference in their lives.

While equality in employment is still a challenge, with only 17.7% of disabled Americans employed, other essential aspects of independence and dignity have significantly improved as a direct result of the ADA. Everything from the number of wheelchair-accessible city buses and buildings to the presence of ATMs and elevators with braille buttons indicates dramatic advancement in the last 30 years, often with minimal cost to the employing entities.

Technology also holds great promise for our disabled population with driverless cars, 3D printing of prosthetics and robotic limbs. In the same way that the ADA has had a significant impact on the architecture of buildings over the past 30 years, many activists are using Title IV to positively impact technology challenges like second generation smart phones’ elimination of actual buttons that allow for braille adaptations.

Prelude as prologue. In these tumultuous times, we may find guidance for the future in the wisdom of the past. Amazingly, the ADA offers us some pearls-of-wisdom on its 30th—or “pearl”—anniversary.

Bipartisan champions. It may seem unfamiliar (but hopefully compelling) to all Americans to learn that there were champions on both side of the political aisle dedicated to drafting and passing the ADA. With the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, then Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush promised civil rights legislation for disabled individuals throughout his campaign. In Congress, the chief sponsors of the ADA were Democrats Tony Coehlo and Major Owens in the House and Tom Harkin in the Senate, with the support of “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy. However, “staunch conservatives” like Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, John McCain and disabled veteran Bob Dole were also essential to the ADAs adoption. While Senator Jesse Helms opposed what he called the “Lawyers Relief Act” (in reference to fear of overwhelming business impact and a flood of litigation), imagine this: the final vote in the Senate was 76-8 in favor of ADA passage.

Grassroots response. What should also be compelling is the depth and dedication of so many American citizens and grassroots political organizations like Justin Dart, Jr., founder of the American Association of People with Disabilities and Patrisha “The General” Wright, co-founder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. Tens of thousands of citizens were actively, meaningfully and thoughtfully engaged in protests, sit-ins, sing-ins, letter campaigns and calls to members of Congress and government officials. On July 13, 1990, Senator Harkin marked the passage of ADA in the House by thanking leaders outside of Congress as much as those within it. The first 1:30 of his speech on the floor of Congress were delivered in American Sign Language in honor of his deaf brother Frank. Leadership came from all quarters and corners.

Enduring commitment. Despite borrowing reasonable accommodation requirements from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and protected class concepts from the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Americans’ with Disabilities Act has had a challenging 30 years. While ADA Title II (Public Services: State and Local Government) and Title III (Public Accommodations Operated by Private Entities) provisions have been overwhelmingly supported by the Supreme Court, Title I (Employment) cases have met with mixed success because of a narrow interpretation of “disability” by the Court in the Sutton and Williams cases.

As a result, Congress amended the ADA in 2008 to signal a recommitment to the broadly inclusive intent of the original Act and challenged since its passage. (It was signed into law, interestingly enough, by President George W. Bush.) In addition, many credit the ADA as the inspiration for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with 163 country signatories.  With all that in mind, it is also important to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the ADA as a critical beginning, not a finish line.

The road ahead. Aside from its own critical mission, I hope the 30-year anniversary of the ADA is a reminder of the value of our national commitment to essential dignity, fairness, and equality for all. Perhaps expansion of the ADA to employer reporting, standing to sue for damages beyond injunctive relief and inclusion in affirmative action requirements can be transformational in the efficacy of the employment provision of Title I.

I also hope this 30-year anniversary also serves as a reminder of what is possible, if too often neglected in American politics: that impassioned but respectful debate, meaningful compromise based on principles and a commitment to do right by each other is the path to lasting achievement. The recent passing of Congressman John Lewis, a great champion of our structured settlement industry’s cause as well as for making “good trouble,” is a powerful reminder of this same lesson. There has never been a better time to listen.


1 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(8).

2 According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation Data, employment among persons with severe disabilities increased modestly between 1991–92 and 1994–95. Subsequent surveys show flat or minimal gains.

3 According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, 58% of accommodations cost absolutely nothing to make, while the rest typically cost only $500. Three categories of federal tax credits have become available to offset much greater costs: (See IRC §§ 44, 51, 190)

4 Jesse Helms’ fears were quite unfounded. Ninety percent of ADA cases filed with the EEOC are thrown out. Ninety-eight percent of ADA cases that go to court are decided in favor of the defendants. With 6 million businesses, 660,000 public employers, 80,000 state and local governments as potential defendants, only 650 lawsuits were filed in the first five years after passage. In 2017, fewer than 4% of the nation’s dockets involve ADA claims with 54% of all those claims arising in 3 states: California, Florida and New York.