Americans With Disabilities Act

Washington — Twenty years ago, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, disabled people in the United States won legal guarantees similar to those achieved in the civil rights movement a quarter of a century earlier.

The ADA “made a very big difference,” says Judith Heumann, the State Department’s special adviser on international disability rights.

“The value of this law was that it acknowledged that discrimination against disabled people in the United States was pervasive and systemic, and that the federal government needed to intervene,” said Heumann, a lifelong advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

The ADA was signed on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The law “has a very broad effect,” Heumann said, “because it deals with the government and the private sector.” The ADA substantially mirrors the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, religion, gender and national origin illegal. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in the areas of employment; public services, such as education, medical facilities, transportation and voting booths; public accommodations and commercial facilities, such as stores, hotels, restaurants, recreation areas, theaters and arenas; and telecommunications.

Thanks to ADA, city buses and trains in the United States have lifts or ramps for wheelchairs, priority seating signs, handrails, slip-resistant flooring and information stamped in Braille. Emergency call centers are equipped with telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs), and federally funded public service announcements have closed captioning. Sidewalks have curb cuts (ramps), and public restrooms have special stalls for persons in wheelchairs.

Heumann, who contracted polio at the age of 18 months, knows very well the barriers faced by disabled people. “I use a wheelchair, and for many years in my life there was no federal requirement that if a movie theater or a restaurant or a hotel were being built, or if any of these facilities were undergoing major renovations, they would have to be accessible,” she said.

“Today the average person can see that when you go to movie theaters and shopping malls, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, they are accessible. Sometimes [clothing store owners] store things in the wheelchair-accessible dressing rooms and don’t use them correctly — but basically the physical environment of the United States has dramatically changed.”

Many Americans don’t know the history of these universal design changes, Heumann said. “I think if you asked a younger person, they would presume that this was something that always was there — and in fact we know it wasn’t always there.” (Universal design — such as curb cuts, railings and cabinets with pull-out shelves — is usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities.)


Although the ADA prohibits discrimination in job recruitment, hiring, promotions, training or pay, “one of the biggest areas we’re still trying to address is getting qualified disabled people jobs,” Heumann said.

She recently attended an event where the National Security Agency (NSA), a component of the U.S. intelligence community, was honored for its record of hiring people with disabilities.

“Here was a government agency that had people in senior- to mid-level management positions who had the responsibility to recruit, hire and ensure that appropriate accommodations were made for the [disabled] employee,” Heumann said. The most important factor was NSA’s attitude, she said. “When qualified people came to them, they looked at the qualifications and they didn’t give reasons why not — they said, ‘Yes we can, and how do we do it?’”

When Heumann was an assistant secretary of education in the 1990s in the administration of President Bill Clinton, she was assisted by a young blind man who said he had recently graduated from Stanford University. “I asked him where he’s working. And he wasn’t working,” she recalled. “He said he got job interviews, but when people saw that he was blind, he wasn’t getting jobs. I think that’s still a common story today.”

Although high schools and universities are more accessible than ever before, Heumann said, “The dropout rates [for disabled students] are still too high.”

As disabled people become integrated members of the community, she said, “the stigma of disability slowly disappears — but I think it’s fair to say that there really is a heavy stigma associated with disability. People are afraid of becoming like us. I think they really don’t know how they would adjust [to being disabled], and I think that’s one of the barriers that exists.”

“We have a lot to celebrate with the 20th anniversary of the ADA, and a lot more to do to insure its compliance,” Heumann said.


The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 54 million people in the United States living with disabilities, and the United Nations — which adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 — projects that some 650 million people throughout the world are disabled. They are the world’s largest minority. Eighty percent live in developing countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that “discrimination against people with disabilities isn’t only an injustice, it is a strain on economic development, a limit to democracy, a burden on families and a cause of social erosion.”

In the United States, said Heumann, “the removal of barriers has enabled disabled people to become a growing part of mainstream society.” And like any other group, “if disabled people are working, we have disposable income. It’s spent on restaurants, on travel, on doing what other people do.”

Before joining the State Department, Heumann served as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability and development. It strengthened her belief that the disabled population is a huge untapped asset all over the world.

“When you have more than 650 million disabled people in the world, many of whom are being denied opportunities based on discrimination,” she said, “we can see that if we remove barriers and provide equal opportunities, it will help improve the economies of countries around the world.”

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities elaborates in detail the rights of disabled persons and commits countries to ensuring those rights. The United States signed the convention in 2009; preparations are under way to present it to the U.S. Senate for ratification in 2011, according to Heumann.

See “Americans with Disabilities Act Transforms Lives,” White House on Anniversary of Olmstead Decision, Disabilities Act, and eJournal USA: Disability and Ability.

The biography of Judith Heumann and the announcement of her appointment are available on the State Department website.

The ADA National Network has produced a captioned, audio-described video on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

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