U.S. Congress Enacts Disability Rights

Through the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Congress extended broad civil rights protections to an estimated forty-three million Americans with disabilities.

Summary of Event

In 1991, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that forty-three million Americans were living with some sort of physical or mental disability. For many years, such Americans were not assured of the basic rights afforded nondisabled people. They often suffered from discrimination when they attempted to do such simple things as get a job, see a movie, go out for dinner with family or friends, or rent an apartment. Frequently, disabled people were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)
Disabled persons’ rights[Disabled persons rights]
[kw]U.S. Congress Enacts Disability Rights (July 26, 1990)
[kw]Congress Enacts Disability Rights, U.S. (July 26, 1990)
[kw]Disability Rights, U.S. Congress Enacts (July 26, 1990)
[kw]Rights, U.S. Congress Enacts Disability (July 26, 1990)
Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)
Disabled persons’ rights[Disabled persons rights]
[g]North America;July 26, 1990: U.S. Congress Enacts Disability Rights[07840]
[g]United States;July 26, 1990: U.S. Congress Enacts Disability Rights[07840]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 26, 1990: U.S. Congress Enacts Disability Rights[07840]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;July 26, 1990: U.S. Congress Enacts Disability Rights[07840]
Harkin, Tom
Coelho, Tony
Hoyer, Steny H.
Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;Americans with Disabilities Act

Disabled people confront two general types of barriers. The first type is physical, such as the barriers caused for those in wheelchairs by stairs, narrow doorways, and narrow store aisles. The second type of barrier is less visible and includes obstacles such as hiring practices. Many people with disabilities are victims of blatant discrimination in everyday life. In the job market, many disabled individuals face discriminatory evaluations during the application process that focus on the existence of a disability rather than on the ability to perform a job.

Beginning in the 1960’s, the U.S. government played an increased role in establishing the rights of disabled individuals. Two acts indirectly provided rights to the disabled. One was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Fair Housing Act (1968) which required new apartments to be “adaptable” to future disabled tenants, and the other was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Civil Rights Act of 1964 which guaranteed basic rights to women and to members of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups. The Civil Rights Act did not specifically mention the disabled, however, and thus they were still not guaranteed all the rights accorded nondisabled people in American society.

Other federal government actions focused specifically on the rights of the disabled, including passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Rehabilitation Act (1973) which was the first milestone in this area. Section 504 of the 1973 act prohibited discrimination on the basis of handicap in any program or activity receiving federal funds. This covered, for example, activities in any federal employment, in employment by federal contractors, and in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Any agency that denied access to the disabled risked losing all federal funding.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975) was another milestone for disability rights. Passed in 1975, the EAHCA established the principle of teaching children with disabilities within the nation’s mainstream school systems. The law stated that all children are entitled to a free public education, regardless of disability. As a result of this statute, children with disabilities began to learn alongside nondisabled students, and in the process they became better able to cope with their disabilities. The number of students with disabilities who received a full secondary school education grew dramatically as a direct result of the EAHCA.

The first of the disabled children who attended school under the EAHCA began to enter the labor market in the 1980’s. They were well educated and highly motivated, and they had useful work skills. Most important, they wanted to find meaningful employment. Unfortunately, they often found that they faced discrimination both in seeking employment and, if hired, in getting to their job sites. Many Americans with disabilities began to demand the rights afforded to the nondisabled in the workforce.

Groups that advocated for the rights of disabled persons were successful in getting members of Congress to address issues surrounding the rights of the disabled in public places. The many existing organizations that had always focused their work on gaining rights for groups of individuals with particular disabilities—the blind or the deaf, for example—all came together to support the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One group that brought much public attention to the issue of disabled rights was the National Council on the Handicapped. National Council on the Handicapped Also working to gather support for the ADA was the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Leadership Conference on Civil Rights These groups, along with supporters in Congress, were able to garner great support for the measure.

President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

(White House)

Tom Harkin, a Democratic senator from Iowa, was the chief sponsor of the ADA in the U.S. Senate. Harkin, who had a brother who was deaf, was keenly aware of the problems faced by individuals with disabilities. He was also a member of the Senate’s Labor and Human Resources Committee and chair of the Handicapped Subcommittee, to which the ADA was referred. The ADA had support from the majority of the members of the Senate, and the entire Senate passed the legislation quickly on September 7, 1989.

Tony Coelho, a Democratic representative from California and a person living with epilepsy, first introduced the ADA into the U.S. House of Representatives. When Coelho was forced to resign his congressional seat in June of 1989 after investigations into his finances raised ethics questions, he asked Steny H. Hoyer, a Democratic representative from Maryland, to act as floor manager for the bill as it progressed through the House. Hoyer had been the original cosponsor of the bill and had worked closely with Coelho in the early stages of the bill.

The bill had to travel through four House committees before it could be introduced to the House for voting. This made for a much longer and more difficult route than in the Senate. The Education and Labor Committee was the only committee to approve the bill in 1989. The other three committees passed the bill in 1990. The Energy and Commerce Committee on March 13, 1990, was the second committee to approve the bill; Public Works and Transportation approved the bill on April 3, 1990; and the Judiciary Committee on May 2, 1990, became the fourth and final House committee to approve the bill. The entire House overwhelmingly passed the bill on May 22, 1990.

Two particular issues slowed the ADA on its path to becoming law. The first had to do with an amendment that would allow employers to transfer workers with contagious diseases out of food-handling jobs, even if such diseases could not be transmitted through food. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue noted that the amendment was aimed at people with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV/AIDS[HIV AIDS] Proponents of the amendment claimed that restaurant owners needed the flexibility to transfer people out of such jobs because of public perceptions that infected workers would pose a danger. Opponents asserted that the law should not be based on such perceptions, which were exactly the kind of problem the bill was needed to overcome.

The second issue that slowed passage of the ADA had to do with congressional coverage. Members of both chambers of Congress agreed that Congress should be subject to the bill’s ban on discrimination but disagreed on how the bill should be enforced. The House version of the bill provided for an internal mechanism; the Senate bill made the provisions applicable to the Congress.

The final bill compromised on both issues. On the AIDS issue, the ADA required the secretary of Health and Human Services to produce a list of communicable diseases that could be transmitted through food. On the congressional coverage issue, the bill provided that the internal mechanism would apply in the House and that the Senate would set up its own internal procedure while also allowing for cases to go to federal court.

The ADA was passed in final form by the House on July 12 and by the Senate on July 13. President George H. W. Bush, who had given strong support to the bill since 1988, when he was vice president, signed it into law at a White House ceremony on July 26, 1990.


The ADA was written much like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it was broader in that it included protection for any person with a mental or physical impairment that substantially limited major life activities. The ADA prohibited discrimination against the disabled in employment, public services, and public accommodations and required that telecommunications be made accessible to those with speech and hearing impairments through the use of special relay systems. The law applied to all public facilities, including office buildings, gas stations, airports, hotels, bars, restaurants, lobbies, sports facilities, libraries, and parks. The ADA was much broader in scope than the 1964 Civil Rights Act in that it increased the accommodations protections to include services ranging from museums, theaters, and sporting events to doctors’ offices, hospitals, and pharmacies. Businesses that did not comply with the law might have to give back pay, front pay, attorneys’ fees, and job reinstatement to people who had been the victims of discrimination.

Many business interests were opposed to passage of the ADA. Business owners claimed that they would have to spend large amounts of money to comply with the new rules; they would be forced to install wheelchair ramps, elevators, telephone devices for the hearing-impaired, and more. Supporters of the ADA asserted that this was not necessarily true—businesses had only to come up with cheap and creative solutions to allow people with disabilities equal access to their facilities. The federal government also offered a construction tax credit for businesses to help them comply with the law.

The section of the law that affected the greatest number of businesses—the provisions covering hiring practices—would not cost businesses anything. Business owners and managers had to rethink the way they interviewed job applicants to ensure that the questions they asked were relevant and had to examine the essential and nonessential parts of each job. Employers could face lawsuits for turning down applicants who could perform all the essential parts of a job.

Questions remained as to some of the very broad and vague language found in the ADA. For example, the bill required businesses to make “reasonable accommodation” that did not cause “undue hardship” on them. The vagueness of these terms and others troubled business groups, who argued that disagreements over the definitions would lead to a high number of expensive and time-consuming lawsuits.

The ADA also forbade discrimination on public transportation. All new vehicles bought for public transit were required to be accessible to disabled people. Companies that provided intercity transportation were required to make adaptations for wheelchair users. New rail facilities were required to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Also, one car per train in existing rail systems had to be made accessible.

The Department of Justice was assigned the duty of enforcing the ADA and published proposed rules to implement the ADA. The department also established a new office, within the Coordination and Review Section of the Civil Rights Division, expressly to address ADA implementation issues.

On a broad level, sponsors of the ADA hoped the bill would change the way Americans thought about and treated people with disabilities. ADA supporters wanted the bill to be a first step in helping to integrate the disabled into mainstream American society; they looked forward to a day when it would be common to see individuals with disabilities participating in many different activities alongside nondisabled people. The ADA also sent the message to Americans with disabilities that they did not have to be dependent on others and that they could have greater participation in community life. Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)
Disabled persons’ rights[Disabled persons rights]

Further Reading

  • Francis, Leslie Pickering, and Anita Silvers, eds. Americans with Disabilities: Exploring Implications of the Law for Individuals and Institutions. New York: Routledge, 2000. Collection of essays by experts in many different fields examines the philosophical, legal, and public policy questions surrounding the ADA. Includes an appendix containing the text of related laws and court decisions.
  • Gearheart, Bill R., Mel W. Weishahn, and Carol J. Gearheart. The Exceptional Student in the Regular Classroom. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill, 1996. Focuses on the challenges of educating students with various kinds of disabilities. Emphasizes that each disabled student has particular needs that the educational system must meet.
  • Hunsicker, J. Freedley, Jr. “Ready or Not: The ADA.” Personnel Journal 69 (August, 1990): 81-86. Provides an extremely readable summary of the provisions of the ADA for employers and speculates about the probable effects of the ADA on businesses. Provides legal definitions of some vague terms included in the law.
  • McKee, Bradford. “Achieving Access for the Disabled.” Nation’s Business 79 (June, 1991): 31-34. Presents a summary of the ADA from the business point of view. Summarizes some controversial aspects of the law and makes predictions regarding the ADA’s likely effects on businesses. Notes the effective dates for different parts of the bill.
  • Rovner, Julie. “Promise, Uncertainties Mark Disability-Rights Measure.” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 48 (May 12, 1990): 1477-1479. Provides a legislative summary of the ADA as well as the proponent and opposing points of view on the proposed bill.
  • Scotch, Richard K. From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Examines the effects of the ADA as well as the act’s failures in the eyes of people with disabilities. Discusses the role of the disability rights movement in passage of the ADA. Includes bibliography and index.
  • “Sweeping Law for Rights of Disabled.” 1990 Congressional Quarterly Almanac 46 (1990): 447-461. Presents brief background on the bill and describes the path of the bill through Congress. Includes a readable summary of the provisions of the ADA.

U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities

U.S. Law Provides for Public Education of Disabled Children

United Nations Adopts a Declaration on Disabled Persons’ Rights