ADA 31st Anniversary Commemoration

July 29, 2021

July 26, 2021 marked the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To celebrate the milestone, we took to Facebook and Twitter to share 31 moments from the past 31 years highlighting major wins for disability rights, as well as continued barriers to access. If you missed it, or if social media just isn’t your thing, don’t fret! We’ve compiled all 31 posts into a mini history lesson for you right here.

Polaroid-style photograph of disability rights activists dragging themselves up the Capitol steps. Captioned, 1990: Capitol Crawl #ADA31 #DisHist

The ADA was passed thanks to the tireless activism of people with disabilities. On March 12, 1990, activists cast aside their wheelchairs and mobility aides and crawled up the steps of the Capitol to support the Act. It was signed into law four months later.

Illustration of six people outside of a condominium building. Two use wheelchairs and another uses a cane. The illustration is fitted within a Polaroid-style frame. Captioned, 1991: FHA requirements #ADA31 #DisHist

The Fair Housing Act requires all “covered multifamily dwellings” designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities; however, lack of affordable, accessible housing remains an issue today.

Polaroid-style photograph of disability rights activists in wheelchairs holding signs that say, Deliver us from steps! And, No ramps no peace! Captioned, 1992: Curb Cuts #ADA31 #DisHist

People with disabilities quickly found that the ADA’s promise of accessibility would not be realized without continued pressure on offending parties. This photo shows a 1992 rally to pressure New York City government to fit the city’s streets with curb cuts.

  • Photograph by James Estrin. The protesters holding signs are Joyce and Angelo De La Rosa.

Polaroid-style photograph of disability rights activists including Paul S. Miller, Judy Heumann, Phyllis Rubenfeld, and Justin Dart participating in a parade. A banner above them reads, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Captioned, 1993: Disability Independence Parade #ADA31 #DisHist

Disability rights activists borrowed many tactics from the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, like demonstrations of civil disobedience. At the 1993 Disability Independence Parade, activists displayed this banner, featuring a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Polaroid-style photograph of a teacher and elementary age children in a classroom. Captioned, 1994: Rachel Holland #ADA31 #DisHist

On January 24, 1994, a federal court sided with Rachel Holland, an 11-year-old girl with intellectual disabilities who had been denied the opportunity to learn in a general education classroom, paving the way for more inclusive classrooms across the country.

Polaroid-style photograph of a newspaper article from the January 24, 1995 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article is titled, Letters to the editor, Backlash against the Disabled. Captioned, 1995: Justice for All #ADA31 #DisHist

Justin Dart, Becky Ogle, and Frederick Fay founded “Justice for All” following calls to amend or even repeal the ADA. They rallied a huge grassroots campaign to save the law. Featured here, activist Marca Bristo’s 1995 letter to the editor defending the ADA.

  • To learn more, check out this archive of materials from former Senator Dole’s office. The archive contains over 12,000 pages of documents, correspondence, and speeches concerning the needs of Americans with disabilities.

Polaroid-style photograph of Sandra Jensen smiling outdoors. Captioned, 1996: Sandra Jensen #ADA31 #DisHist

On January 23, 1996, Sandra Jensen became the first person with Down syndrome to receive an organ transplant in the US. This milestone came after a massive campaign against hospitals that rejected Sandra from their transplant programs.

  • “Doctors did not believe a woman with Down syndrome would be able to follow a strict post-surgery routine.” To prove that she was a suitable candidate, Sandra lived in her own apartment, handled her own money, and cooked her own meals. Learn more.

Polaroid-style photograph of disability rights activists in wheelchairs are apprehended by police officers as they block a Greyhound bus from moving. Captioned, 1997: Transit protests #ADA31 #DisHist

For decades, activists have used various tactics in their campaigns for accessible transit. This photo, from 1997, shows activists blocking a Greyhound bus in an act of civil disobedience. Inaccessible transit remains an issue to this day.

Polaroid-style photograph of Peter Torpey, research scientist for Xerox, in his office. Captioned, 1998: Section 508 #ADA31 #DisHist

Throughout the 1990s technology rapidly developed. In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended to include Section 508, requiring the Federal government to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

Polaroid-style photograph of Elaine Wilson and Lois Curtis on a city sidewalk. Captioned, 1999: Olmstead v. L.C. #ADA31 #DisHist

On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court held that people with disabilities have the right to live in the communities of their choice, rather than face institutionalization, following a lawsuit brought by Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson under the ADA.

Screenshot of the National American History Museum’s virtual exhibit on the ADA’s tenth anniversary, fit within a Polaroid-style frame. Captioned, 2000: ADA 10th anniversary #ADA31 #DisHist

For the ADA’s tenth anniversary, @amhistorymuseum opened an exhibit highlighting the history of the disability rights movement, featuring accessible web-based kiosks. Follow the link to interact with the exhibit as a museum-goer would have: https://americanhistory.si.edu/disabilityrights/

Casey Martin sits in the driver’s seat of a golf cart holding a golf club. Captioned, 2001: Casey Martin #ADA31 #DisHist

In 2001, golfer Casey Martin won a lawsuit against the PGA Tour, which had required all players to walk between shots during a portion of the tournament. The Supreme Court ruled that the tour must accommodate Martin’s disability by allowing him to use a golf cart.

Polaroid-style photograph of Amy Myers, a 35-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair, tests an accessible voting machine. Captioned 2002: Help America Vote #ADA31 #DisHist

The Help America Vote Act was signed into law on October 29, 2002, designed to increase turnout for people with disabilities by make polling places accessible and facilitating the use of accessible voting procedures. Voting inaccessibility remains a problem today.

Polaroid-style photograph of participants in the Free Our People March walking and rolling down the side lane of a busy street. Captioned, 2003: Free Our People March #ADA31 #DisHist

On September 3, 2003, roughly 200 people with disabilities set out on the Free Our People march, a 144-mile trek from Philadelphia, PA to Washington, DC to protest in support of increased funding for in-home support services. They reached DC two weeks later.

Polaroid-style photograph of an Archstone apartment building with the Washington Monument in the background. Captioned, 2004: ERC v. Archstone #ADA31 #DisHist

In 2004, the ERC sued Archstone-Smith following a testing investigation finding the developer’s properties did not comply with accessibility requirements. The settlement required Archstone to bring over 10,000 units into compliance.

Polaroid-style photograph of a protest sign that reads, disability rights = civil rights. Captioned, 2005: DRC joins the ERC #ADA31 #DisHist

The Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington was a civil rights group that advocated for the needs of people with disabilities, from MetroAccess improvements to healthcare equity and more. The organization and its membership joined the ERC in 2005.

Polaroid-style photograph of a Target retail store. Captioned, 2006: NFB v. Target #ADA31 #DisHist

In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind sued Target, alleging that the retailer’s website was inaccessible to blind shoppers. The case is significant as it established that online venues can qualify as places of public accommodation under the ADA.

Polaroid-style photograph of delegates gathered in a large lecture hall, participating in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to develop the treaty. Captioned, 2007: United Nations Treaty #ADA31 #DisHist

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an international human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations. 160 parties signed the Convention upon its opening in 2007 and 126 ratified it within five years. The US, notably, is not one of them.

Polaroid-style photograph of accessibility experts Mark Mazz and Bill Hecker at the ERC’s 2019 MHRP annual meeting. Mark draws a diagram on a whiteboard as Bill looks on. Captioned, 2008: MHRP Launch #ADA31 #DisHist

In 2008, the ERC launched its Multifamily Housing Resource Program, dedicated to helping housing industry leaders comply with accessibility requirements, and increasing the number of accessible apartments and condominiums. Today there are over a dozen members.

Polaroid-style photograph of protesters outside the Authors Guild office. Many hold signs with phrases such as, Let Kindle Speak and Why Don’t Authors Want To Be Heard? Captioned, 2009: E-Reader Accessibility #ADA31 #DisHist

Amazon’s “Kindle 2” e-reader offered a text-to-speech function, but in 2009, the Authors Guild successfully lobbied Amazon to allow authors and publishers to deactivate the feature on their titles. Here, activists protest the Authors Guild’s position.

Polaroid-style photograph of event attendees holding a banner that reads, The Americans with Disabilities Act, celebrating 20 years, rights worth fighting for! Captioned, 2010: ADA 20th Anniversary #ADA31 #DisHist

On July 26, 2010, over 1,000 people gathered at the Boston Common to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ADA. “My ability to work, my ability to live independently… Without the ADA, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said attendee Rob Park.

Polaroid-style photograph of protesters in the rotunda. Some continue to protest as others are arrested by Capitol Police officers. Captioned, 2011: Protesting Medicaid Cuts #ADA31 #DisHist

In May of 2011, ADAPT activists occupied the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building to protest Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicaid plan, which they said would force people with disabilities to live in nursing homes. The proposal was later voted down in the Senate.

Polaroid-style photograph of an accessible taxi parked in a lot. Captioned, 2012: Accessible Taxis #ADA31 #DisHist

In 2012, 15 wheelchair accessible taxis were introduced in Prince George’s County, MD. “This is going to give us a lot of freedom to go places,” said Greenbelt resident Regina Lee at the time. Accessible on-demand transit remains an ongoing need to this day.

Polaroid-style photograph of Maysoon Zayid speaking on stage at the TED conference. Captioned, 2013: Representation in Hollywood #ADA31 #DisHist

“Hollywood has a sordid history of casting able-bodied actors to play disabled on screen.” Maysoon Zayid, an actress with cerebral palsy, gave a TED talk in 2013 highlighting the plight of actors with disabilities. The talk went viral and has educated millions.

Polaroid-style photograph of Haben Girma at a podium holding a computer keyboard and braille display. Captioned, 2014: NFB v. Scribd #ADA31 #DisHist

In 2014, Haben Girma represented the National Federation of the Blind in a suit against Scribd, a large digital library. Scribd argued the #ADA didn’t apply to online venues, so they didn’t need to make their books accessible, but the judge ruled against them. #ADA31 #DisHist

  • Haben Girma spoke about her work on the case in this New York Times article reflecting on the ADA’s 30th anniversary last year.

Polaroid-style photograph of Victor Calise, Susan Calise, George Galiago, Senator Harkin, and Edward Friedman at New York City’s first Disability Pride Parade. Captioned, 2015: Disability Pride Parades #ADA31 #DisHist

New York City held its first Disability Pride Parade in 2015, with former Senator Tom Harkin, author and chief sponsor of the ADA, serving as a Grand Marshal. Since the first Disability Pride event in Boston in 1990, parades have been held in over a dozen cities.

Polaroid-style photograph of an ADAPT member in a wheelchair being escorted out of the House Office Building by a Capitol Police officer. Captioned, 2017: Healthcare Protests #ADA31 #DisHist

The 2016 election spurred a Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with a plan that would cut Medicaid funding and weaken protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. Protesters, like this ADAPT member, fought back and won.

Polaroid-style photograph of Harriet Lowell and her counsel outside of the Charles L. Brieant Jr. Federal Building and Courthouse.

Harriet Lowell launched a class action lawsuit against Lyft in 2017 for failing to provide equitable service to people who use wheelchairs. As ridesharing has eclipsed traditional taxi service, the fight for accessible on-demand transit has reignited.

Polaroid-style photograph of an empty wheelchair in an airport. Two airplanes are partially visible through the window. Captioned, 2018: Airline Access #ADA31 #DisHist

A provision enacted in 2018 requires airlines to report to the Department of Transportation how often passengers’ wheelchairs and scooters are reported damaged, lost, delayed, or stolen. Data soon revealed that airlines mishandle roughly 29 devices per day.

Polaroid-style photo of a smartphone in someone’s hand displaying the Domino’s Pizza app. Captioned, 2019: Robles v. Domino’s Pizza #ADA31 #DisHist

Guillermo Robles sued Domino’s Pizza under the #ADA after he was unable to order food on their website and mobile app using a screen-reader. In 2019, the Supreme Court left in place a lower court ruling requiring the pizza chain to make their website accessible.

Polaroid-style photograph of a woman putting on a protective face mask. Captioned, 2020-2021: Covid-19 #ADA31 #DisHist

This past year, the Covid-19 pandemic intensified barriers people with disabilities have faced for decades – from discriminatory healthcare policies to voting inaccessibility. The resounding message from the disability community: we can’t go “back to normal.”

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The Equal Rights Center (ERC) — a national non-profit organization — is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org. 

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