The Americans With Disabilities Act Turns 32 Years Old

Jul 26 2022

Tuesday July 26th, 2022 marks the 32nd anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

The ADA was written with the intention to alleviate the institutional barriers that had long since existed in society which often repressed individuals living with disabilities. While the ADA was a giant step forward for individuals living with disabilities, it did not eradicate the systemic disenfranchisement of disabled individuals. Disabled individuals represent one of the largest and most ignored groups of individuals worldwide.1 In fact, disabled individuals comprise the single largest minority group in the world. In today’s America, roughly 1 in 4 adults have some form of a disability.2

The ADA actively protects disabled individuals from the obstacles erected by their society that inhibit their ability to engage in daily life activities. Such protected activities in the physical realm include access to physical locations (using curb cuts/access ramps), access to bathrooms, and the ability to engage in daily life functions. As time has progressed, more and more of these activities have transitioned to the online environment.

The Adoption of the ADA

On July 26th, 1990, President George H. W. Bush, flanked on all sides by prominent members of the disabled political community on the South Lawn of the White House, signed the ADA.3 At the time of its enactment the ADA represented significant progressive action in the movement towards equality. Today, the ADA represents something more than just the anti-discrimination provisions it contains, but rather is a monument to the civil rights campaigns of its supporters. The ADA was drafted in such a manner that it aimed to alleviate discrimination against disabled individuals in all facets of life.

The ADA is broken down into five sections, otherwise known as titles. Title I of the ADA provides for protections from discrimination in employment opportunities and benefits. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination by “public entities” in providing for public services. Title III of the ADA prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against disabled individuals. Title IV of the ADA provides that telecommunications companies must provide for a national (interstate and intrastate) relay service that allows for individuals with speech and/or auditory disabilities to communicate over the telephone. Title V of the ADA, “Miscellaneous Provisions”, provides for various provisions relating more broadly to the ADA.

The ADA In Today’s Society

The ADA continues to be one of the most significant and well-known pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. While the ADA was passed over three decades ago, the provisions/clauses therein are still entirely relevant today. The ADA is responsible for many of the anti-discrimination measures taken to protect individuals in various areas of life, especially those found to require protections in the physical realm. One might often be exposed to the physical barriers by which the ADA sought to resolve and manifest their connection with ADA by thinking about accessibility ramps, the acceptance of service animals in all environments, and other perceivable accommodations.

While the ADA actively protects disabled individuals from the obstacles erected by their society that inhibit their ability to engage in daily life activities. Such protected activities in the physical realm include access to physical locations (using curb cuts/access ramps), access to bathrooms, and the ability to engage in daily life functions. As time has progressed, more and more of these activities have transitioned to the online environment.

Much has changed in society since the adoption of the ADA in 1990. The world has become hyper globalized through digital modems. On August 6th, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee published the first website on the World Wide Web. Three decades later, approximately 1.88 billion websites exist on the worldwide web. The use of the web has been heavily integrated into the fabric of everyday life, as more and more Americans adopt virtual adaptations of previously in-person responsibilities (often conducted at places of public accommodation). Rapid growth of ecommerce, mobile grocery shopping, telehealth, and other activities that individuals engage with on the internet have revealed a significant oversight on the part of the drafters of the ADA, a lack of adaptation of the document to future concerns (notably the internet).

Room For Improvement

Whilst the ADA has been pivotal in the preservation of rights for all persons, regardless of their disability status, the supposed gaps in its jurisdiction leave much to be desired when assessing anti-discrimination behaviors of today’s society. As today’s world has become both hyper globalized and hyper digitized, the ADA has failed to keep up. With roughly 9 out of 10 of all individuals living in the United States accessing the internet, one would imagine that the spirit of the ADA would clearly indicate that the online environment was meant to be a protected place of public accommodation.4 Unfortunately, the law is not crystal clear on the matter, and there are competing interpretations that muddy the understanding of web owners’ obligations to disabled individuals. The internet, as has been interpreted by about half of the United States Circuit Courts (that have taken up this issue) should be considered a place of public accommodation. The very same major life activities that are protected in the physical environment have found been transferred to the virtual environment by virtue of convenience and necessity.

32 years after its enactment and it’s time that the image of a post-ADA United States be realized. Business owners, the government, and the average American, regardless of their disability status, owe it to their society to engage in educational practices concerning accessibility. Accessibility serves everyone, not just those who an intended action is meant to help. At one point or another in someone’s life, they are likely to be labeled as disabled. The barriers one can help eliminate and prevent will help foster a more inclusive, rich, and diverse society.

The Future for the ADA

It wasn’t until this year that a renewed sense of urgency surrounding the issue of web accessibility sparked conversations concerning permanent changes in the law. While there had been a few previous attempts at legislative action, none had garnered enough support to change the law. While no legislative action is on the floor of either chamber of Congress at the moment, members of both chambers have taken an active role in calling for executive/bureaucratic changes to the policies and guidelines that govern website accessibility. In March of 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ended their four-year silence on regulatory matters concerning web accessibility.5

The letter effectively states the DOJ’s position (among others) that websites are to be considered places of public accommodation under the ADA. Accordingly, the notion that websites should be treated as places of public accommodation gained little national attention until June of 2022, when 10 prominent United States Senators called on the Attorney General (AG) and the DOJ to promulgate a universal standard for accessibility, while also asking them to clarify their position on covered entities under their guidance, and update their guidance on all forms of technology to be considered current (so as to reflect the changes in technological devices since it’s last update).6 Still, nothing has been done. Members of both major political parties, in both chambers, admit that it is time that this issue be resolved once and for all, yet there is still no legislative movement. Many are not sure when the legislation may come, but it is inevitable that a change be made in the ADA to reflect the technological advancements of the past 30 years. With a national election coming up in November, it seems unlikely that this legislation would appear on the floor of a chamber before the swearing in of the next Congress.

To help ensure that your organization is on the path to being more inclusive, start by considering your level of risk. AAAtraq encourages you to take 60 seconds to understand your own risk position – you can do it, free at https://AAAtraq.com/ (opens in a new window) - no registration required - and results are immediately available and understandable. Green = good - red = bad.

1 “Fact Sheet on Persons with Disabilities ”(United Nations), accessed July 21, 2022, https://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/toolaction/pwdfs.pdf (opens in a new window).

2“Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 16, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html (opens in a new window)

3 25 members of the 117th Congress were also members of the 101st Congress and voted on the original passage of the ADA. 24 of those members voted in favor of its passage, with one voting against it. In addition, President Biden was a member of the Senate in the 101st Congress and voted in favor of the ADA’s passage.

4 "Topic: Internet Usage in the United States,” Statista, July 6, 2022, https://www.statista.com/topics/2237/internet-usage-in-the-united-states/#dossierKeyfigures (opens in a new window).

5 “Department of Justice Publishes New Ada Guidance after over 4 Years of Silence,” AAAtraq, March 31, 2022, https://AAAtraq.com/news/2022/03/department-justice-publishes-new-ada-guidance (opens in a new window).

6 “Disability and the Digital Divide ”(Office of Disability Employment Policy for the United States Department of Labor, June 2022), https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ODEP/pdf/disability-digital-divide-brief.pdf (opens in a new window).

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