Americans with Disabilities Act turns 20

By Katherine Ott and Meecha Corbett
Black and white portrait of small girl with large white bow in her hair, holding rolled paper in hand, sitting in wheel chair

Americans with Disabilities Act buttons

By Curator Katherine Ott 

There are a lot of people in town this week for the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And being Washington, along with the parties, receptions, and congratulations, there are serious policy symposia, workshops, and advocacy events. It is a lovely thing to witness and of course my history-minded thoughts turn to all the people who got us here, from the anonymous citizens caught in snapshots stored in our collections, to the revered leaders no longer with us, like Justin Dart, Ed Roberts, and Helen Keller.

We have been gathering and collecting images of people with disabilities, especially those from decades ago. They are in their chairs at school graduation, standing on an artificial leg in a field feeding a foal, surrounded by friends and family on a porch, or doing their equivalents of ADL’s (Activities of Daily Living).


Early 20th century postcard: Children at Play, Western Pennsylvania Institution for the Blind, Pittsburg, Pa.
Early 20th century postcard.

It is relatively easy to document events. You can collect buttons, photographs, ephemeral literature, and furniture used or clothing worn at the time. But how do you collect feelings? The history of the ADA is wrapped with so many feelings. Such as the present happiness, hope, and promise of continued inclusion and opportunity. There are also the feelings of exhaustion from the struggle to get laws in place that protect people in the workplace and the community, ensure kids get an education, and stop abuse and discrimination. And the feelings of belonging that arise from finding your place in the world, making up with friends, raising children, and passing on your wisdom or your old assistive device. And there is also the despair of being stuck in poverty because no one will venture outside of their comfort zone and hire you or the righteous anger built from barrier after barrier that has blocked your basic civil rights.

Graduation photograph, c. 1925-35.Graduation photograph, c. 1925-35.

I have been working on the history of disability for quite a while and we have a pretty significant collection of objects. Yet I look at the old photographs and wish I knew what they were feeling on the day their picture was taken, with their body moving however it moved, people staring or not, and what material thing in their life expressed their emotion at that moment. (We’re lucky that intern Meecha Corbett was willing to share her feelings about working at the museum on disability history below.) 

You can feel the excitement in the air this week but in what material form can it be captured?

Katherine Ott is a curator in the Division of Science and Medicine at the National Museum of American History.


By Intern Meecha Corbett

Wow, it is the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act! The ADA covers so many things—like employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to public services. I am a summer intern and as I was researching, I was thinking about what life would be like if these laws were not in place.

Intern Meecha CorbettIntern Meecha Corbett

I am seventeen, so life with the ADA seems completely normal. You get to see your parents yelling at companies or businesses when something is wrong with their access or services. In those situations, I try to blend into the background but it doesn’t always work—you have to know my mom.

Without the ADA, there might be no integration in schools or employment. The disability community might be banished and treated like a burden to society. We might be confined to our houses or institutions. Some of the nastier laws might still be in place, like the ugly laws prohibiting unwanted people on the streets, in the public eye. Or the sterilization laws that gave medical authorities the right to sterilize people in institutions. Euthanasia might be legal. After I thought about this for a few days I realized I would have no life.

ADA Posters  Then I found this quote from Senator Ted Kennedy on the fifteenth anniversary of the ADA, five years ago today. “Today we celebrate the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, one of the greatest civil rights laws in our history.” I agree with this statement. Let’s celebrate the hard work that people have done before us.

Meecha Corbett is an intern in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.