General Resources for Understanding ADA: Evolution of the ADA

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Part I: A Brief Introduction to ADA Titles II & III

Want to start with Part I? Read the full blog post here. Now let’s jump into the evolution of ADA.

Part II: Evolution of ADA

Behind many of our country’s legislation shifts are the actions of people unifying to support a movement of change. The inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was no different.

While the Act’s official passing took place in July 1990, it took many years of effort from those behind the Disabilities Rights Movement to arrive at that moment in history. The work isn’t finished either, for the Act opened up the doorway to an evolving process with the ultimate goal of equitable environments for individuals with disabilities.

As the ADA celebrates 30 years from it’s original passing, let’s take a look at the evolution of the movement.

Beginning of the Disabilities Rights Movement

While there are examples of discrimination against individuals with disabilities dating centuries back, let’s focus on the changes we’ve seen from the 20th century onward.

In the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for people with disabilities to be institutionalized and segregated throughout North America and Europe. Not only did they experience segregation and daily obstacles in their lives, but they were in certain cases prohibited from marrying, banned from appearing in public, and, horrifyingly, sterilized.

As in other civil rights movements, this movement started with knowing a better quality of life was possible. Many groups emerged in 1900 to fight for the rights of individuals with disabilities. Some were looking to develop employment opportunities during the Great Depression, while others wanted to provide support for those transitioning from hospital environments in to a community. Even parents who wanted their children with disabilities to have an education started to mobilize.

All made their voices heard, but would it be enough?

Gaining Momentum, Together

Progress can be messy, and it was for the disability community. With new organizations, self-advocacy groups, budding research, and legislation changes, the message that people with disabilities deserved equality was gaining traction. Victories like Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. But if it weren’t for the unfazed efforts across the community, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act would not have come to light. Before the Act, disabled individuals were categorized and divided, but now, fortified by their strength from struggle, they could work together to make a continuous impact. This legislation gave people with disabilities something long overdue: “class” status.

The Rehabilitation Act was passed, but it took time for the entities impacted by the Act to pay it respect. The organization responsible for issuing Section 504 regulations (The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW)) didn’t do so until a fleet of sit-ins occurred in numerous HEW Buildings.

There were additional instances, like in the case of Grove City College v. Bell, that showed a lack of understanding of the pervasiveness of discrimination. A force met this gap: people across various minority groups came together to stand for their rights, like in Southeastern Community College v. Davis in 1979, and the attempted de-regulation of Section 504 in 1980.

Monumental group efforts like these served as the inspiration for the ADA’s eventual proposal.

ADA Approved

After a final act known as the “Capitol Crawl”, where members of the disability community crawled up the White House steps to demonstrate the inaccessibility of infrastructure, the ADA was passed on July 26, 1990. It took until 1993 for the Act to become effective.

This was a significant victory for all people with disabilities, but there was still work ahead.

ADA Amended

After years of protesting, organizing, lobbying, and advocating, the disability community had laid its foundation. But, because as a class, individuals with disabilities experience similar yet different forms of inaccessibility, there was push-back on what constituted as disabled. You can access a list of notable cases here

The definition of disability needed to be broadened and required to account for the wide variety of discrimination people with disabilities might face. 

In 2008, the ADA Amendments were signed, expanding the definition of disability and making critical distinctions like:

“Adds a new provision restricting employers’ use of qualification standards, tests, or other selection criteria that are based on uncorrected vision standards; Clarifies that an individual who satisfies only the “regarded as” prong of the definition of disability is not entitled to “reasonable accommodation”; and Modifies the language of the ADA’s “General Rule” that prohibited discrimination against “a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual” to say that discrimination is prohibited against “a qualified individual on the basis of disability.”

Thirty Years Later

During the years since the ADA and its amendments were implemented, more changes have taken place – including updates to transportation regulations and design standards. The strong foundation set years ago by the Disabilities Rights Movement provided an invaluable network of support, passion, and perseverance that continues to be seen in disability communities today. 

Yet again, there is no question there is still work to do and ways to collectively improve. With continued diligence, our country is working towards building an accessible home for all.



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