The ADA Turns 25: Decades of Progress and the Road Ahead

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Mary Faithfull, Executive Director


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is one of our country’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation. This equal opportunity law for people with disabilities was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

During the ceremony in which President George H.W. Bush signed the law, he said these unforgettable words, referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall just months prior, “And now 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.”

This year, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the ADA, we celebrate the great progress our nation has made to ensure that people with disabilities are able to fully and equally participate in the mainstream of American life. We are also mindful that when the ADA was signed in 1990 that it was not the beginning of the disability rights movement in the United States, though it certainly was a major milestone in a fight for equality that continues today.

Prior to the enactment of the ADA, people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities worked tirelessly for years to obtain the same basic human rights as their counterparts without disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor has created a timeline that recounts these efforts over several decades. It begins with the Smith-Fess Act signed in 1920 by President Woodrow Wilson that established a vocational rehabilitation program for Americans with disabilities, and it concludes with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 that focuses on improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Road Ahead 

But the last entry on the timeline cannot and will not be the last effort. We have made great strides through the passage of the ADA and other laws that protect and advance the rights of people with disabilities, but our work is not done.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities still face a higher-than-average unemployment rate. And some who are employed through sheltered workshops receive less than a dollar per hour because of a “loophole” in the law.

Also, some states, including Texas, are still segregating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in institutions that provide substandard care and leave them vulnerable to abuse and neglect. But we know that with the appropriate services and supports, many of these people can live successfully in the community at significantly less cost to the state.

Particularly in regard to the ADA, enforcement remains a problem. As two of our own attorneys so aptly wrote in a recent Texas Bar Journal article, “History shows that law’s full impact depends not only on its passage but also on its enforcement. Judges, lawyers, and law firms should lead the way in making sure that the ADA’s promise of an equal, inclusive society is fulfilled—one where people with disabilities can go where others go, do what others do, and become all they want to become.” (Lia S. Davis, Attorney; Brian East, Senior Attorney)

And so Disability Rights Texas will continue to join with our partners to ensure enforcement of the ADA and other disability rights laws. We press on with our vision of creating a society where all people are treated with dignity and worth, including people with disabilities.

Happy 25th Anniversary to the ADA!