8 ways in which the Americans with Disabilities Act changed everyone's lives

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. 

The American Disabilities Act, signed in the White House on July 26, 1990, was groundbreaking for people with disabilities. But it was also groundbreaking for all American people, as it attempted to prevent the discrimination against people with disabilities that prevented them from having the full rights of citizenship. It gave people with disabilities rights for which many thousands had been fighting for decades. The disability-rights movement was a grassroots movement, and in many ways it culminated with the signing of this Act. It is the first comprehensive list of laws specifically addressing the rights of people with disabilities. It radically challenged old, discriminatory laws, and touched almost every area of society, as transportation and employment policies were updated. For the first time in history, the United States government officially defined the rights of people with disabilities. It ultimately changed the way America viewed people with disabilities as a whole.

Blue and white symbol, person in wheelchair

Before the American Disabilities Act was signed:

  1. People using wheelchairs who wanted to ride a bus or train would need to abandon their wheelchairs.
  2. A restaurant could refuse to serve a person with disabilities. 
  3. A grocery store could prevent a disabled person from buying the goods there.
  4. If a person in a wheelchair could actually physically enter a library, he or she might not be able to check out library books, because of the wheelchair.

“I can’t even get to the back of the bus”; ADAPT activists protesting for accessible transportation, Philadelphia, 1990

  1. "Homosexuals" could be considered disabled. There was no previous legal definition of disability and homosexuality was considered a disease until 1973.
  2. Any place of employment could refuse to hire a person just because of his/her disability.
  3. A person with disabilities could legally be paid less just because of his/her disability, even if he or she was doing the same work as another person.
  4. Because the restrooms on trains were not accessible, people often had to wear precautionary diapers when they traveled.

Photograph of train car and platform. Women with cane standing at car entrance. Yellow detectable warnings strip in front of her.

Want to learn more? Here's a short list of new laws initiated by the ADA:

  • Section 12132 of this title and section 79 of title 29, it shall be considered discrimination for a public entity to fail to have at least 1 vehicle per train that is accessible to individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, as soon as practicable but in no event later than the last day of the 5-year period beginning on the effective date of this section.
  • General rule. No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.
  • Homosexuality and bisexuality. For purposes of the definition of "disability" in section 12102(2) of this title, homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and as such are not disabilities under this chapter.
  • General rule. No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.
  • General rule. No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

You can find the full text of the ADA here.

Samantha Lombard is an undergraduate History and Art History Major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.