Twenty seven years ago today, the first comprehensive civil rights act for individuals with disabilities was signed into law. The vote yesterday to move forward on debate for the “Obamacare” repeal has created a strange anniversary for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Now with the possible repeal of Obamacare and massive cuts to Medicaid looming, the legacy of progress for individuals with disabilities is threatened. On the anniversary of this groundbreaking bill, here are four things you should know about the ADA:
1. Like other civil rights bills, the ADA didn’t work as intended right away and was only the first step in a long process to advance civil rights for individuals with disabilities.
Twenty seven years ago, former Senator Tom Harkin, the chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, proclaimed: “The ADA is indeed the 20th century emancipation proclamation for all Americans with disabilities.” He likely wasn’t aware of how unfortunately prophetic those words would become.
Harkin intended to celebrate the major breakthrough of passing comprehensive civil rights for individuals with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications. The law ultimately requires that buildings and transportation be wheelchair accessible, television programming have closed captioning, and that individuals with disabilities be provided with appropriate workplace accommodations.
Yet similar to the emancipation proclamation which did not end slavery, the ADA did not immediately grant full civil rights for individuals with disabilities. The path from ADA passage to ensuring individuals with disabilities received the access Congress intended included a series of setbacks. In 1999 the Supreme Court restricted the reach of the ADA’s protections by narrowly construing the definition of disability. As a result, individuals with a wide range of impairments — including cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, hearing loss, multiple sclerosis, HIV, intellectual disabilities, and post-traumatic stress disorder — were routinely found not to be disabled and therefore not covered by the ADA. This lead to the eventual passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which reversed those decisions by broadening the definition of disability under the law. These Amendments also extended protections to individuals using a variety of supports including cochlear implants, hearing aids, and prosthetics.
2. Before passage of the ADA, many students with disabilities were not being educated at all.
Prior to the ADA, large numbers of children with disabilities were systematically excluded from American public schools. Many have estimated that in the early 1970s, approximately one million school-aged children with disabilities were excluded from public educational programs. Moreover, an additional three million children with disabilities attended public schools but were not provided services to meet their educational needs.
3. The ADA applies to non-religious private schools and private universities even if they do not receive federal funding.
Unless subject to the exemption for religious organizations, private schools must comply with the public accommodations portion of the ADA and ADAAA. This means private schools must ensure students with disabilities are not excluded, denied services, segregated, or treated differently than other students. These schools must also make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures that deny access unless this would result in a fundamental change in the nature of their program or result in undue administrative costs.
4. While accessibility extends to websites, the standard for web accessibility is an unsettled area of the law.
When originally enacted, the ADA did not include websites as places of “public accommodation” because the internet was still in its infancy. As internet usage has become ubiquitous and an unlimited number of goods and services have been made available online, courts have interpreted places of public accommodation to include websites.
During the Obama administration, the Office of Civil Rights required schools to make their websites accessible to the disabled. Yet, currently there is no clear legal standard that has been adopted for schools to follow. While the Department of Justice has asked for public input on website accessibility issues, their proposed rules have been delayed several times and are expected to be released in 2018.