July 26, 2022, marks the 32nd anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the 20th century Emancipation Proclamation for People with Disabilities. Prior to the enactment of the ADA, people with disabilities were often segregated and denied equality of opportunity based on fear, ignorance, prejudice, stereotypes, labels, and pernicious mythologies. For example, prior to the ADA, a private sector employer could refuse to hire a highly qualified person with a disability because a CEO instructed their human resources staff that “we do not hire those kind of people.”

The ADA rejects these precepts and instead embraces the precept that disability is a natural and normal part of the human experience that in no way diminishes a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society. The ADA mandates the removal of barriers to employment, public services, public accommodations, public and private transportation, telework, telecommunications, websites, online systems, mobile apps, and other forms of information and communication technology. The goals of disability policy, as articulated in the ADA, include equality of opportunity, full participation, economic self-sufficiency, and independent living.

The ADA was enacted because of the concerted, dedicated, and persistent efforts of persons with sensory, physical, and mental disabilities, professionals, and disability-related organizations. Members of Congress worked in a bipartisan manner with President George H.W. Bush to craft civil rights legislation that balanced the rights of people with disabilities with the legitimate concerns of business, employers and state and local governments.

Thirty-two years after the enactment of the ADA, the law remains a crucial tool in addressing persistent discrimination, including failure to ensure competitive, integrated employment as the presumed, priority, and default placement by state and local agencies; provide meaningful opportunities to community-based services and supports; and eliminate new barriers to equal opportunity, such as inaccessible websites, online systems, mobile apps, and other forms of information and communication technology, algorithm bias in artificial intelligence, lack of access to the gig economy, and ineffective or inadequate responses to pandemics and other state- or national-level emergencies. The ADA also serves as a model for civil rights protections for people with disabilities in other countries.

So, on the 32nd anniversary of the ADA, each of us needs to treat people with disabilities with dignity and respect; focus on an individual’s strengths and capabilities; recognize, embrace, and celebrate differences; and foster empowerment, self-determination, and inclusion by embracing the precept that disability rights are civil rights.


Article written by Bobby Silverstein, Principal in the Powers Law firm and former staff director and chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin (D. IA) and chief sponsor of the ADA. To learn more, contact Bobby Silverstein at Bobby.Silverstein@PowersLaw.com

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