A History Lesson: The Long Road to the Americans with Disabilities Act

Americans with Disabilities ActThis month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26,1990. The law was the culmination of many years of hard work and advocacy by disabled individuals and their supporters across the country. It built upon legislation that came before it and ushered in a new era of civil rights.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required federal and federally-funded buildings to have accessible entrances and restrooms. The Access Board developed the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards. Historian Hugh Gallagher, who used a wheelchair after being diagnosed with polio and served as a legislative aide to Senator Bob Bartlett, was instrumental in its passage.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, signed by President Richard Nixon, said that no otherwise qualified person could be discriminated against because of a disability in any program or activity that received federal assistance. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare refused to issue regulations to protect these new rights until it was sued by Dr. James L. Cherry, a veteran with quadriplegia. Officials still refused to sign the regulations, so disabled citizens and their supporters staged demonstrations in HEW offices across the country.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which later became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was passed in 1975 to provide students with disabilities equal access to education. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 made it easier to travel, and the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 made it easier for disabled people to find housing.

Evan Kemp was one of the instrumental players who helped win passage of the ADA. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 12 and began using a wheelchair after breaking his leg in 1971. He was denied jobs and a promotion and sued successfully for job discrimination in 1977. Kemp became director of the Disability Rights Center in 1980 and became the most prominent disability rights advocate in Washington. Kemp became friends with George H.W. Bush and his chief counsel, C. Boyden Gray, and advocated for people with disabilities.

Justin Dart contracted polio in 1948. He earned history and education degrees from the University of Houston, but the university refused to give him a teaching certificate because of his disability. The university is now home to the Justin Dart, Jr. Center for Students with Disabilities, which helps students with disabilities achieve their academic goals.

Dart worked in Japan and was inspired to become involved in the disability rights movement after visiting a facility for children with polio in Vietnam. When he returned to the United States, he began serving in high-level roles, including as vice chair of the National Council on Disability. He used his own money to visit every state and territory and meet with disabled people to hear their concerns.

The National Center on Disability drafted a report called “Toward Independence” calling for a law to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. Dart became known as the “Father of the ADA.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act was a culmination of many years of hard work and growing awareness of the needs of disabled individuals. The law removed some of the remaining barriers for people with disabilities. We honor the many Americans who fought for the ADA for their contributions and hope that our country will continue to make strides toward full inclusion for all.

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