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ADA Changes over 23 years

Twenty three years ago on July 26th The American’s With Disabilities Act was signed into law.  The ADA recognized civil rights for the disabled; reflecting changing societal attitudes  partially brought about by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act passed Seventeen years earlier.   On this important anniversary I encourage you to take stock of both how far we have come and how far we still have to go. 
To set the stage, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first published use of the word handicap in association  with  impairment was in Lillian D. Wald’s “The House on Henry Street(1915); Chapter 6 is titled “The Handicapped Child.”   The term is not used in the body of the chapter which refers to children with disabilities as “poor things”, “defectives”,  “the abnormal” or simply “them”.  The chapter discusses the need for segregation and hints at sterilization.
“The Board of Education permitted her to form the first class for ungraded pupils, in School Number 1, in 1900, and the settlement gladly helped develop her theory of separate classes and special instruction for the defectives, not alone for their sakes, but to relieve the normal classes which their presence retarded.”  (page 117)
“The time comes when the child’s own interests and those of the community demand the wisest, least selfish, and most statesman like action. Society must state in definite terms its right to be protected from the hopelessly defective and the moral pervert, wherever found. This constitutes the real problem of the abnormal.  At the adolescent period those unfit for parenthood should be guarded—girls and boys—and society should be vested with authority and power to accomplish segregation, the conditions of which should attract and not repel.” (page 123)
Sixty five years later the term Handicapped was used in the precursor to the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 504.  While still rooted in the medical and charitable conception of disability the term handicapped was anchored to a broader definition of disability “A physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activity” and the focus is now on preventing discrimination within federally funded programs, including state and local government, solely on the basis of handicap.  After a four year struggle to implement enforceable regulations the law would emphasize accommodations that would allow participation in the most integrated setting possible rather than segregation.
Thirteen years later in 1990 the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed extending rights beyond federal fund recipients by including private employers and business in the same fashion as the Civil Rights Act.  The opening of the of the ADA summarizes the findings of Congressional hearings stating:
“individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority who have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society, based on characteristics that are beyond the control of such individuals and resulting from stereotypic assumptions not truly indicative of the individual ability of such individuals to participate in, and contribute to, society”
In 2008 Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act providing feedback on the Courts’ interpretation of the ADA stating in part that:
“In enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Congress intended that the Act “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” and provide broad coverage;”.
The bulk of the amendments clarified the broad coverage of the ADA; making the definition of disability more inclusive.  Congress also revised the prohibition on discrimination from against “otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities” to “on the basis of disability”.  This brought the ADA’s prohibition against discrimination in sync with the protections based on race, national origin, sex and veteran’s status. 
That brings us to this week’s 23rd anniversary of the ADA.  The changes in public policy, attitudes and daily realities that are reflected in this small slice of civil rights’ history are remarkable. The ADA sets the stage for disability becoming an implicit part of efforts to support and value diversity alongside ethnicity, sexuality, national origin, religion and race becoming an implicit part of efforts to value diversity.  Whether you develop curriculum, policy, the built environment or the virtual tools the ADA encourages the integration of Universal Design principals by professionals rather than simple reliance of minimum compliance checklists.  What remains on the civil rights horizon?
The world is increasingly interdependent.  Business, education, communications and entertainment are increasingly global and disability policy must recognize this.  How access and civil rights for the disabled are defined around the word is uneven.  To ensure the rights of American’s working, studying, or traveling abroad the US and its role as a world leader the US needs to shape and support international treaties as it has done with the  World Intellectual Property Organization’s  Marrakesh Treaty To Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled and the United Nations Convention On the Rights of People with Disabilities.  The next critical steps if, as Congress put it when they passed the ADA “The Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” is Senate ratification of these treaties. 
What changes can you imagine for the next 23 years?
L. Scott Lissner, Ohio State University ADA Coordinator, Office Of Diversity And Inclusion
Associate, John Glenn School of Public Affairs
Lecturer, Knowlton School of Architecture, Moritz College of Law & Disability Studies
President, Association on Higher Education And Disability
Appointed,  Ohio Governor’s Council For People With Disabilities, State HAVA Committee & Columbus Advisory Council on Disability Issues