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Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act:
Looking Back, Moving Forward

Remarks by Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the ADA) is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation enacted to provide a comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities. This historic law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, government services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications. In the twenty years since it was first signed into law, the ADA has been instrumental in helping to break down longstanding barriers faced by people with disabilities and fulfill the American vision of equal opportunity and justice for all.

The ADA became possible only after a hard-fought struggle waged by the disability rights movement. Over the last four decades, thousands of disability rights advocates – community organizers, business leaders, politicians, and average citizens – have joined together in earnest to protest, lobby, march, litigate, and vote for equal rights for individuals with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first major federal legislative victory in this fight. This Act prohibits federal agencies, federal contractors, and recipients of federal funds from discriminating against people with disabilities. While this Act was relatively limited in scope (it did not prohibit discrimination by most private sector employers, for instance), it was nevertheless groundbreaking. For the first time, federal law recognized that the long-standing exclusion of individuals with disabilities from many segments of society was a form of discrimination and required a national response.

Building on this foundation, disability rights advocates pressed for passage of a similar law that would apply much more broadly. The goal was the enactment of legislation that would ensure uniform, nationwide protection for people with disabilities. In 1988, the first version of the ADA was introduced in Congress. During the next two years, key members of Congress from both major political parties worked with the White House, disability rights advocates, representatives from the business community, and other interested stakeholders to fashion a final bill. As a result of these bipartisan efforts, on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law. Upon doing so, President Bush remarked that the ADA “represents the full flowering of our democratic principles” and “promises to open up all aspects of American life to individuals with disabilities . . . .”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was charged with enforcing the portion of the law dealing with disability-based discrimination in employment. In the first years after the ADA was adopted, the EEOC launched an unprecedented effort to educate interested parties about the ADA’s basic rights and requirements. The EEOC issued extensive regulations interpreting the ADA, released a “Technical Assistance Manual” and numerous other “plain language” documents to provide practical guidance on applying the new law, and conducted hundreds of outreach sessions across the country to educate employees and employers about their rights and responsibilities under the law. The EEOC also began to process charges of discrimination brought under the ADA, and to litigate crucial ADA cases in federal court. Hopes were high that the new law would be enforced vigorously and interpreted expansively.

However, over the years it became clear that many courts were not construing the ADA in the broad and inclusive manner Congress had intended. Most critically, the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1999, issued a series of rulings that significantly restricted the scope and protections of the ADA. Over the next decade, courts focused primarily on the issue of whether a particular plaintiff was a person with a qualifying disability protected by the Act – rather than on the ultimate question of whether his or her employer had violated the law. In case after case, courts often would determine that the plaintiff was not covered by the ADA at all, and would dismiss the matter before a judge or a jury could decide whether discrimination had occurred. As a result, the ADA was failing to fulfill its original promise.

Once again, disability rights advocates joined with the business community and other interested stakeholders to formulate an appropriate – and bipartisan – legislative response. This effort culminated in 2008 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). Signed into law by President George W. Bush on September 25, 2008, the ADAAA recognized that, despite the passage of the ADA, people with physical or mental disabilities still are frequently precluded from fully participating in all aspects of society because of prejudice, antiquated attitudes, or the failure to remove societal and institutional barriers. Accordingly, Congress in the ADAAA explicitly rejected court rulings which had narrowly construed the ADA’s definition of “disability” and thus unduly restricted the number of individuals covered by the law. The ADAAA also made clear that Congress intended courts to focus their attention on the ultimate question of whether an individual had been subjected to illegal discrimination – not on whether the employee or applicant fit under a constrained view of disability. With this and other critical statutory changes, the ADAAA restored the potency and potential of the ADA.

The EEOC will enthusiastically continue its robust enforcement efforts as the ADA, newly invigorated by the ADAAA, enters its third decade. As President Obama recently noted, even “as we mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we must renew our commitment to uphold the civil rights of those living with disabilities and to fully include all our people in the life of our nation.” To help do just that, the EEOC will pursue a multi-faceted approach emphasizing education and voluntary compliance, but also using administrative enforcement and litigation where appropriate. I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners and all of our stakeholders to make the promise of the ADA a practical reality for millions of people with disabilities.