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August 01, 2015

Twenty-Five Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Brief Look

Dara Valanejad

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: (Bifocal, Vol. 36, Issue 6).)


President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990.1 Fashioned with the Civil Rights Act of 19642 as a guide, the ADA provides comprehensive legislation on the equal protection of individuals with disabilities.3 The purpose of the ADA is to allow the full participation of individuals with disabilities in society through independence in their living arrangements and finances.4 With this aim, the ADA addresses the four critical topics of employment, state and local government activities, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

Title I addresses employment issues that may arise in cases where an employee has a disability. Generally, Title I prohibits discrimination in the employer’s decision-making process throughout all stages of a potential or actual employee’s position, unless the employer can demonstrate an undue hardship.5 Similarly, Title II requires all state and local governments to provide individuals with disabilities equal protection in accessing the rights and privileges guaranteed to others in that community, such as public transportation.6 Title III concentrates on public accommodations (e.g., movie theaters, hotels, and restaurants), and underscores the requirement for accessibility.7 Lastly, Title IV requires the telecommunication industry to ensure that individuals with disabilities will be able to communicate with others using the most appropriate technology available at the time.8

A 2012 report by the United States Census Bureau found that an estimated 57 million individuals in the United States have a disability.9 To put that into perspective, 19% of the American population has a disability of some sort that prevents them from enjoying their rights and privileges in the same fashion as Americans without a disability.10 While the ADA protects individuals with disabilities in the form of equal opportunity legislation, the reality emphasizes that work still needs to be done.

The Census Bureau noted that only 41% of individuals between the ages of 21 and 64, and with a disability, were employed.11 Conversely, 79% of the individuals in the same age range and with no disabilities had employment.12 Accordingly, nearly 11% of individuals between the ages of 15 and 64, who have severe disabilities, are subjected to persistent poverty while only about four percent of non-disabled individuals were subjected to the same condition.13

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act should be a day of celebration and a day of reflection. Although the nation has shed light on those it previously kept in its shadow, many still need the warmth of that light. The next 25 years of the ADA must continue the work of the last quarter century and ensure that the promise of the ADA is fulfilled.



[1] See Introduction to the ADA, Civil Rights Div., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, (last visited July 23, 2015) (providing an overview of the ADA and related resources).

[2] See id. (noting that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proscribes any discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion).

[3] The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities . . . [and] a record of such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102 (2008). The ADA has included “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working” as major life activities. Id. (clarifying that the impairment of major bodily functions amounted to a major life activity).

[4] See Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 25th Anniversary, Ctr. for Disease Control and Prevention, (last updated July 20, 2015) (“The ADA has made a positive difference in the lives of those who have disabilities by providing better access to buildings, transportation, and employment.”).

[5] See The Americans with Disabilities Act-Overview,, (last visited July 24, 2015) (religious organizations with 15 or more employees are also covered).

[6] Access to public schools, public transportation, public structures, and public services are all examples of areas where a government must provide equal opportunity. See id. (pointing out that governments have an obligation unless an undue hardship is proven or it is proven that the application of equal opportunity would dramatically alter the nature of the governmental right or privilege).

[7] See id. (ensuring that equal opportunity may be accomplished, for example, by creating wheelchair ramps).

[8] Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., U.S. Census Bureau, available at (listing an overview of the demographics of certain types of disabilities).

[9] See id.

[10] See id. (noting that more than half of the individuals reporting identified his or her disability as severe); see also Will Reeve, Disabilities Battle is Not Over, USA Today (July 23, 2015) available at (highlighting that an American Association of People with Disabilities finding showed that nearly 560,000 individuals do not live their homes because of transportation problems).

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

Dara Valanejad

Dara Valanejad is a rising second-year law student at American University Washington College of Law in Washington, DC. Mr. Valanejad is currently a junior staff member of the American University Law Review and will be a Writing Fellow with the school’s Legal Rhetoric program this coming year. Prior to attending law school, Mr. Valanejad was an undergraduate at San Francisco State University, where he graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy and B.A. in History. Mr. Valanejad is a Summer 2015 intern with the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.