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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Anniversary

By Doris Ray, Director of Advocacy

This is the fourth part of a series of articles celebrating ECNV’s 40th Anniversary. This article continues to focus on the people and events surrounding ECNV’s founding in April 1982.

It dawned like no other day – Wednesday, July 26, 1990! Filled with joyful anticipation, I stood on the South Lawn of the White House, along with 2,000 others from all over the United States, waiting to witness President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 into law.

Flooded with a myriad of thoughts and emotions, I was overcome with the sense I hadn’t come alone to this moment. My mother, my uncle, and my grandmother, all of whom were born blind, like me, were here with me in spirit! From an early age, the stories of the prejudice and discrimination they faced awakened my outrage and anger about the way society treated people with disabilities.

My own experience included exclusion from my neighborhood school and busing across town to segregated classes with other students with disabilities. At a state college after high school, I was offered an isolated, segregated dorm room reportedly because I’d be using readers and want to be alone. At the same college, another blind student, who had earned a 4.0 GPA, was refused student teaching needed to graduate and teach high school English because she could not see the chalkboard. She fought it and won, graduating summa cum laude.

Upon graduation from university, I sought my first job but encountered a gauntlet of barriers, including application forms that forced one to disclose one’s disability and interview appointments that were withdrawn upon arrival. Back then there was no recourse under the law.

I recalled my friends and colleagues being unable to enter government buildings, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, movie theaters, and too many other places because they weren’t accessible. I bristled thinking of the downtown eatery that turned away one of my friends, saying that his cerebral palsy would offend other customers. I remembered my anger growing as I waited 3 hours with a visiting friend at Tysons Corner for a bus with a working lift while drivers either passed us by or claimed the lift was broken. I shivered thinking of waiting with a colleague during a snowstorm for nearly two hours for a lift bus she scheduled that never arrived.

I reflected on how we finally decided we’d had enough and organized as a cross-disability rights movement to advocate for our rights. It started in 1968 with returning Vietnam veterans and civilians with disabilities working to get a law requiring that all newly built or leased federal buildings and facilities be accessible[a].

That was the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (the ABA). But, to our chagrin, the Nixon, Reagan and Ford Administrations blocked efforts to write regulations and enforce the ABA. So even the new Federal Building, including post offices, and even our own Metrorail stations, being built in that time, remained inaccessible!

More advocacy by people with disabilities and our allies during the 1970s resulted in the Rehabilitation Act passing Congress in 1972, but President Nixon vetoed it because it contained the Title V disability rights provisions, including Section 504.

Our outrage boiled over, and in response, Judith Heumann of New York led disability rights activists in a blockade of Times Square, gaining national news attention. Congress overrode Nixon’s veto.

However, by 1978, even with a new President, Section 504 implementing regulations were still unsigned. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the first national grassroots, cross-disability organization staged sit-ins at federal offices nationwide, leading to the Carter Administration finally signing the regulations.

Section 504’s coverage was broad with entities getting federal funds, including state and local governments, schools and universities, and transit systems prohibited from discrimination based on disability and required to make programs and facilities accessible. Private businesses were not covered unless they received federal funding.

Sadly, after a hopeful start, many states, localities, and other entities ignored Section 504, or were lax in enforcing it. Some, including most transit authorities, openly opposed its provisions and went to court and to the new Reagan Administration in 1981 trying to significantly weaken its requirements.

Seeing our new found rights withering away, Americans with all types of disabilities joined in solidarity with renewed resolve to secure passage of a national civil rights law. A national grassroots write-in campaign in 1981 stopped the Reagan Administration’s plans to eliminate funding for enforcement of ABA and Section 504.

Starting in 1983, a national grassroots disability rights movement known as ADAPT began using direct action (protests and demonstrations) aimed at exposing the inaccessibility of American communities, including basic government services and public transit. Their goal was to get the transit industry to drop its challenge to making buses and subways accessible, and to highlight the need for disability rights legislation, which would make access the law of the land.

Momentum built with more marches, rallies and protests from 1984-90. Centers for Independent Living, like ECNV, organized people with disabilities in communities throughout the country to advocate for disability rights. One result in Virginia was passage of the Virginians with Disabilities Act in 1985 and Virginia’s Human Rights Law in 1987.

Other disability rights advocates worked the halls of Congress seeking support for an omnibus disability rights act. Meanwhile, ADAPT kept up the pressure with protests in cities throughout the nation, blockading buses and risking arrest, conducting sit-ins at federal buildings, and all-night vigils, including one at the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters here in D.C.

A final push to get a bill through Congress culminated in a massive disability rights march and crawl up the Capitol steps in 1990. As we marched from the White House to the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue, the walls of the Federal buildings reverberated the sounds of our chants, “Access Is Our Civil Right!”

Finally, after a historic public debate, both Houses of Congress passed the bill and sent it to President Bush for signature.

And so here we were at the White House on the morning of July 26, 1990. . Suddenly, President Bush mounted the stage. He spoke those beautiful words, “Let the shameful barriers come tumbling down!” And, with the flick of his pen, it was done, and everything had changed!

Changed – did I really think that all of the physical and attitudinal barriers had simply disappeared with the signing of the ADA? No, of course, I didn’t. We all knew there would be years of struggle and advocacy ahead. But, in that wonderful, jubilant moment, we could revel in what we had achieved.

Americans with disabilities were now first class citizens! For the first time, we had rights under the law, and we had recourse against the injustice of discrimination based on disability.

Access was the law of the land. It was a new dawn, like no other – and, we weren’t going back!