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25 Years On, Disabilities Act Has Changed Lives Of Millions

Five days before he was to start college, Fred Maahs' world turned upside down. Off the Delaware coast in 1980, on the last day of summer vacation, the 18-year-old took a dive from his family's boat into an unseen sandbar barely a foot below the surface, sustaining injuries that paralyzed him from the chest down.

After months of medical care, he had to find a new college to attend — the one at which he enrolled said its campus was not accessible to wheelchairs. One of his first jobs was on the second floor of a building with no elevator; two friends carried him up and down the stairs.

"For those first couple of years, I was really dependent on family or friends," said Maahs. "Back then, people with disabilities were primarily kept at home."

Were that diving accident to happen now, the campus and workplace would be accessible — with ramps, curb cuts, elevators, designated parking spots. A blind or deaf person, or anyone with a host of other disabilities, also would find accommodations enhancing their independence and engagement — all of this the legacy of the sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law 25 years ago, on July 26, 1990.

"Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down," declared President George H. W. Bush as he prepared to sign the legislation. Some 2,000 people with disabilities — elated after years of activism — gathered on the South Lawn of the White House for the ceremony.

The act is monumental in scope, intended to protect people with disabilities from discrimination and enable them to participate fully in the workforce and their communities. Its protections, which now cover an estimated 55 million Americans, extend to five key areas: employment, state and local government facilities and services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and transportation.

Even before the ADA was signed, Fred Maahs was well on his way to a successful career as a businessman and disability-rights activist. He is now an executive of Comcast Corp. and recently ended a term as chairman of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

By bringing attention to physical barriers, the ADA has made "a quantum difference," he says. And yet the law — like the 1964 Civil Rights Act that helped inspire it — remains a work in progress, with some of its goals still unfulfilled.

"The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is outrageous," Maahs said. "And a law isn't going to change the attitudinal barriers. Probably at some point in their life, every kid today with some form of disability will encounter discrimination or stereotyping or bullying."


The ADA did not come about easily — it took decades of work by people with disabilities and their allies. Among the most passionate was Justin Dart, Jr., the vice chair of the National Council on Disability, who traveled nationwide in the 1980s to hold public hearings and collect testimonials of disability-related discrimination.

In Congress, where the act was introduced in 1988, its champions included several lawmakers personally affected by disabilities, including Rep. Tony Coelho of California, who had epilepsy.

"We had to share the scar tissue of our lives," he said, "so Congress would understand how rampant discrimination was."

In the Senate, key supporters included Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose brother was deaf; Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose son had a leg amputated, and Robert Dole of Kansas, who suffered lasting injuries during combat in Italy in World War II.

Dole, who just turned 92, recalled the staunch opposition to the bill among some of his fellow Republicans.

"Most of it was people concerned that the cost would be too great — it would put small business out of business because of what they'd have to do to comply," Dole recalled in a recent telephone interview.

Among the leading foes was Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who nicknamed the ADA the "Lawyers' Relief Act" on the premise that it would trigger a flood of litigation. Dole and his allies argued that the ADA requirements for business were reasonable.

In the end, Helms was among a small group of dissenters. The bill passed the Senate by a 76-8 vote on Sept. 7, 1989.

Debate was tumultuous in the House. There were efforts to eliminate protections for food-industry workers with AIDS or HIV, but ADA proponents remained unified in opposing this amendment and won final passage.

"If the ADA means anything, it means that people with disabilities will no longer be out of sight and out of mind," wrote disability-rights lawyer Arlene Mayerson in a history of how the act evolved. "Accommodating a person with a disability is no longer a matter of charity but instead a basic issue of civil rights."

Today, an entire generation has grown up under the law's provisions. Allie Cannington, 23, said her high school in San Anselmo, California, did a superb job of integrating students with disabilities. A graduate of American University, she has anxiety disorder and also uses a wheelchair much of the time due to a congenital bone disorder.

She now works for the Washington-based National Council on Independent Living, would like to see more young people get involved in disability activism, and has treasured the opportunity to interact with older activists who helped pass the law.

"I have the life I live today because of a lot of different things, and one of those is the ADA," she said. "It has the capacity to ensure people's freedom."

Dole, who had broached the topic of disabilities in his first Senate speech in 1969, counts his work on the ADA as one of his proudest achievements. He made a tour last year through each county in Kansas and said the crowds of well-wishers at virtually every stop included people with disabilities.

"The ADA has been a life-changer for millions for Americans," he said.


Wheelchair-accessible public transit, ATMs marked with Braille, widespread use of closed captioning, fire alarms that can be seen as well as heard — the changes brought by the ADA are apparent at every turn.

In most cases, businesses and various levels of government have made ADA-related changes as a matter of routine, at a cumulative nationwide cost running into untold billions of dollars. Just one example: It's considered standard under ADA guidelines for accessibility compliance to add up to 20 percent to the cost of major architectural remodeling projects.

In many instances over the years, disabled people and their lawyers have resorted to lawsuits alleging violations of the act. There have been some landmark courtroom victories, and also some complaints about overzealous lawyers shopping for disabled clients in order to file potentially lucrative lawsuits.

In California, concerns by the state Chamber of Commerce and other business interests about the volume of litigation led to a bill this year that would give small businesses 120 days to correct violations of ADA access requirements. The bill, pending in the state Assembly after clearing the Senate, has been assailed by some disability-rights activists who say it will discourage business owners from making changes proactively.

Among those who have prevailed in court is Aaron Cannon, now 35, who filed suit in 2005 against a leading chiropractic college, alleging that it was unwilling to accommodate him as a blind student.

Last year, after nearly a decade of litigation, the Iowa Supreme Court ordered Palmer College of Chiropractic to make accommodations to allow blind students to complete degrees. The justices rejected the college's contention that eyesight is a requirement for the profession, which involves adjusting patients' spines to treat back pain.

Now a software engineer in Wisconsin, with a wife and four children, Cannon no longer expects to become a chiropractor, but he remains grateful for the support he received from the National Federation for the Blind and his blind lawyer, Scott LaBarre of Denver.

"There have been some stories about how lawyers go looking for lawsuits to file under the ADA," Cannon said. "Nobody is more angered by that than we the disabled who depend on this law."

In New York City, commercial litigation lawyer Daniel Brown has done extensive pro bono work on major ADA-related cases, inspired partly the fact that his younger brother lost the use of his legs in a swimming accident. Brown played a key role in cases that enabled wheelchair racers to get their own division in the New York City Marathon and ensured that the city's disaster-response plans adequately accounted for people with disabilities. In another of his cases, the city agreed to require that half of the fleet of more than 13,000 taxis will be wheelchair-accessible by 2020. When the case started, less than 2 percent of the cabs were accessible.

Brown called claims of unwarranted lawsuits "a bad rap," adding: "To me, the ADA is one of the most important civil rights acts in our history — I couldn't be prouder to tell people I take on ADA cases."


A quarter-century after the law's passage, joblessness among disabled Americans remains far higher than for other adults. Just 17.1 percent of people with a disability were employed in 2014, compared to 64.6 percent of those without a disability, according to the latest federal figures.

"As much as the ADA has helped, when you look at employment — that's one area where the needle hasn't moved," said Helena Berger, acting president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The ADA stipulates that disabled job applicants should be considered on an equal basis with other applicants, but it has provided little deterrent if an employer opts not to hire a disabled person. While there have been many successful lawsuits by disabled people saying they were fired or demoted unfairly, it's been far harder for them to win lawsuits asserting they should have been hired in the first place.

Indeed, there has been debate in academic circles as to whether the ADA may have had a negative effect, swaying some employers into not hiring disabled people for fear of ADA-related legal complications down the road.

Some experts, including Cornell University economist Richard Burkhauser, argue that the U.S. disability system is at fault. He recommends that existing benefits programs be revised to provide more incentive for people with disabilities to find employment, rather than to subsist on disability payments.

Chai Feldblum, a disability-rights lawyer who serves on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said the ADA is "necessary but not sufficient" in regard to reducing unemployment. She believes progress will be made under another federal law, the Rehabilitation Act, as it applies affirmative-action targets to federal contractors so they will strive to have people with disabilities filling at least 7 percent of their jobs.

The EEOC enforces ADA provisions dealing with employment. Charges alleging disability discrimination comprised more than 28 percent of its caseload in 2014, higher than any other category.

In recent years, the EEOC has been receiving about 25,000 ADA-related charges annually, with complainants alleging they'd been harassed, fired unfairly or denied accommodations that would enhance their performance. A majority of the charges are dismissed — but some cases result in monetary settlements, including some $95 million in the 2014 fiscal year alone.

The EEOC cases encompass dozens of categories of disability, ranging from alcoholism and dwarfism to tuberculosis and speech impairment. Among the disabilities figuring in large numbers of cases are depression, anxiety disorder and chronic back problems.

There are ongoing efforts to encourage more activism among people with so-called "non-visible disabilities" — conditions such as depression, anxiety, diabetes, epilepsy, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder that are covered by ADA protections.

Among those speaking out is Andrew Imparato, the executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities who has coped throughout adulthood with bipolar disorder.

"I encourage my colleagues with non-apparent disabilities to claim your disabilities and be 'out' at work," Imparato wrote in a recent opinion piece. "The stigmas associated with many of these conditions would be diminished more quickly than they will be if people continue to keep their disabilities to themselves."

Feldblum, who helped draft the ADA as a young lawyer, said she has lived with anxiety disorder. The types of discrimination faced by people with such conditions can be subtle, "but it's just as dangerous in terms of not being able to keep a job," she said.

There's another piece of unfinished business for the movement in general and for Bob Dole in particular.

It's to get congressional ratification of a treaty promoting equal rights for disabled people around the world. It's been ratified by more than 130 other countries.

In December 2012, Dole, in a wheelchair and looking frail, sat in the Senate chamber to show his support for the treaty. But his presence failed to dent opposition by fellow Republicans, and the treaty fell five votes short of ratification.

Opponents said the treaty could undermine U.S. sovereignty and possibly lead to the government, rather than parents, determining the best interests of disabled children on issues such as home schooling.

The Senate vote was "personally disappointing," Dole said. "Here we are the leader in disability progress, and we can't get it done."

Still, he's ready to help out again in a new push for ratification.



Federal information on the ADA: