Americans With Disabilities Act 104 Stat. 327 (1990)

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is the high-water mark in the expansion of civil rights initiated by the civil rights act of 1964. The tactics, language, and libertarian aims of the disability rights movement note this debt, especially in the ADA's references to ending "segregation," "discrete and insular minority" status, and "political powerlessness." Brought about through a remarkable coalition of activists concerned about diverse disabilities, the personal involvement of President george bush, and overwhelming support in Congress, the ADA proclaims that "the Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals" with disabilities.

The ADA defines disability as a "mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." The legislation also covers those who have had a disability or are "regarded as having" a disability.

The four major titles of the ADA deal with employment, state and local governmental services (including public transportation), public accommodations, and telecommunications, respectively. The ADA requires that hearing or speech-impaired persons be able to communicate with hearing persons through a telephone relay system. New commercial buildings and alterations to existing ones must be designed and constructed to be fully accessible. However, only "readily achievable" alterations need be made to existing places of public accommodation. Public accommodations include facilities ranging from those specifically covered in the 1964 act, such as restaurants and hotels, to gymnasiums and bowling alleys. As a general rule, people with disabilities must have "the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation." New buses, trains, and other transportation facilities will also have to be accessible.

The most important provision of the ADA is Title I, which is the analogue of Title VII, the employment discrimination section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Enforced as well by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title I strikes down barriers to employment and promotion found in job qualifications, examinations, and classifications. Particularly noteworthy is the requirement that an employer provide "reasonable accommodation" to an "otherwise qualified" individual with a disability—thus enabling performance of the "essential functions" of the position. An employer cannot, however, be asked to bear an "undue hardship" in accommodating an otherwise qualified person with a disability.

Disputes over the ADA focused largely on the costs it would impose on covered entities and the definition of disability. Proponents argued that most of the required modifications are a minor financial burden, particularly in light of the estimated $169.4 billion spent annually on programs that primarily promote dependency. Supporters predicted that the productivity unleashed by individuals now able to work would cease their being dependent.

The ADA presents a striking interpretation of the equality of natural rights on which the Constitution rests. It seeks to halt the slow march toward the nightmare world of perfectly classified types depicted in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The law relies on the fourteenth amendment and the commerce clause for its constitutional authority. But it not only affirms the equal civil rights of all persons, including those with severe mental and physical disabilities; it requires as well the elimination of both physical and attitudinal barriers. The enforcement of the ADA should not produce the quotas and preferences that have hitherto plagued civil rights enforcement. Individuals with disabilities need to be accommodated on an individual basis, not treated as a group. In seeking entry into the mainstream of American life the disability rights movement has fought ceaselessly against exactly this thoughtless group classification.

Evan J. Kemp, Jr.


Huxley, Aldous 1932, 1969 Brave New World. New York: Harper & Row.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 1983 Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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Americans With Disabilities Act 104 Stat. 327 (1990)

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