Twenty five years ago today, former President George H.W. Bush signed into law one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in world history – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA is the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. The ADA makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified job applicants and employees based on their physical or mental disabilities. The law also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees who need them because of their disabilities, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Until the ADA was passed, employers refused to hire workers who needed mobility aids, such as a wheel chair.
Passage of the act represents a hard-fought struggle and an incredible triumph for disabled Americans, who were once the most neglected and powerless in the country.
The foundation for the ADA was set years earlier in 1977 with the adoption of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities. That law extended civil rights to people with disabilities in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, including schools and employment services. However, Section 504 l
anguished without regulations to implement the act. Disability rights activists got fed up in 1977 and organized major demonstrations in 10 cities, including a 150-person sit-in in the office of the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco’s federal building . The sit-in lasted 28 days and prompted then-HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to sign the implementing regulations for Section 504.
One of the organizers of the 1977 sit-in, the late Kitty Cone, who had muscular dystrophy and used a wheel chair, would later write:
”For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection. We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change.”
Cone called the sit in “a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again. Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were. And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems.”
The more one learns about the struggle for workers’ rights in America, the more it becomes apparent that anything is possible when people band together to demand their rights.