Happy 25th Anniversary, ADA

Twenty-five years ago today, July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

The fact that this anniversary is boring and uncontroversial underscores the depth of social changes that ADA exemplified, ratified, and advanced.  Aspects of the ADA are costly.  The required changes to American physical structures–buildings, sidewalks, roadways, and more–have been significant. (If you wonder how significant, travel to any great old European city and imagine how you would get around if you were mobility-impaired.) No serious politicians speak of repealing and replace ADA. They would be universally condemned if they tried.

So much of American social policy has proven mediocre or mean-spirited. Much remains to be done to help people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric limitations and disabilities achieve full and equal citizenship in American society. Yet today deserves celebration. Americans across the political spectrum have opened their hearts and their wallets to make a better country. In this important area, much was accomplished.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

5 thoughts on “Happy 25th Anniversary, ADA”

  1. Excellent point Harold. Western Europe has a stronger safety net but way fewer rights for disabled people. In much of the public transportation system in France, the UK etc., if you use a wheelchair you are flat out of luck. I was in a Danish restaurant a few months ago where the one bathroom was down a steep flight of stairs that were challenging even for people with two working legs and superb balance.

    I wonder if the Republican support for the ADA is what makes it less controversial over time. It was not just that GHW Bush signed it, but that it was driven by an extremely wealthy Reagan appointee, Justin Dart as well as Congress members like Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.

    Finally, the lack of controversy in part may be that many accomodations “for the disabled” end up being appreciated by everyone (e.g., elevators in public transport stations, low curbs on the street).

  2. One key factor is that major disability is distributed semi-randomly across the income distribution. Important politicians like FDR may themselves be disabled; others like David Cameron may have a disabled child, or like JFK (or Harold) a sibling. So the failure of empathy that is so striking in the elite's response to unemployment or racial discrimination applies much less to disability.

    My impression of European provision does not match Keith's, but then I have less knowledge of the American situation. Disabled toilets and wheelchair ramps are spreading. The urban heritage naturally makes it more expensive and difficult,

  3. I'm not sure all this triumphalism is warranted. In my (limited) experience with architects, restaurant owners, employers usw affected by the ADA, everybody hates it, or at least its application to them. Probably not enough to do anything about it, but enough that some Pain Caucus type proposing "sensible reform" (aka gutting) of the ADA might get more support than you think, especially if some business group decided to go after the law the way they've gone after the IRS.

    1. Retrofits can be annoying but accommodation in new construction is quite well -accepted.

      I wouldn’t bet on much backing off ADA, which is good.

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