31 Years of Access for People with Disabilities: Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990!

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photo of Colleen Kelly Starkloff

This year the disability community nationwide celebrates thirty one years of accessibility requirements that create a world that welcomes all people with disabilities! Our nation wasn’t always accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities. It took a lot of advocacy, patience, laws, codes, and disabled persons coming together to make this happen.

When my late husband and I started advocating changes that would improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities in the early 70’s, little public access existed. Many policy makers did not see the need to make access changes, like ramps in public buildings, curb cuts at street corners, and lifts on buses. “After all,” they would tell us, “when do you see anyone with a disability out in public!” It was an odd response, Max and I thought, because without accessibility changes you would not see people with obvious physical disabilities out in public because public spaces were not accessible, therefore not welcoming to disabled people!

There was a law, however, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, that did require physical and Program access provided by entities that received federal financial assistance. Under Title V, Section 504, of the Rehabilitation Act, any entity that received federal financial assistance was restricted from discrimination against people with disabilities. This meant that such entities, (colleges, universities, museums, school districts, healthcare institutions, and more) were required to provide access features, such as ramps, accessible elevators, restrooms, parking spaces, sign language interpreters, Brailled materials, and disabled students’ offices on college campuses, etc so that people with disabilities could use their facilities. In addition, public transit systems, like Bi-State Development Agency, were required to provide lifts on buses so that people who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, etc. would be able to board the bus and ride. Even national parks were required to make access changes under the Rehab Act that made these public places accessible to visitors with disabilities. This was a great start for us!

However, this law did not cover all the other entities that were not accessible to people with disabilities. So in 1988 disability advocates nationwide banded together to create a law that would mandate access changes in entities that did not receive federal financial assistance. It took us two years and a lot or organizing, but on July 26, 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law. This triggered requirements for entities like hotels and restaurants, businesses, public pools, resorts, shops and stores and so much more to provide access for disabled persons. It also called for an end to discrimination in hiring practices. Companies could not refuse to hire and accommodate a qualified person with a disability. As a matter of fact, this practice continued somewhat unfettered, due to having to prove that a disabled person was not hired due to disability.

The good news is that we are now seeing more and more companies seeking qualified persons with disabilities to join their workforce. More students with disabilities are Dreaming Big about having careers in corporate America. We rarely see hotels and restaurants that do not have accessible parking, entrances, and rooms that are welcoming to guests with disabilities. When changes like these occur, the public begins to become aware that people who are disabled want the same things as people who are non-disabled: the opportunity to live and work in their own communities and become contributing members of those communities.

We all have a vested interest in an accessible world. Why? Because at any time, though accident, illness, temporary injuries, or aging we are all likely to need access. While that is a threatening thought, it is also true. Aren’t you glad that access changes that can improve your quality of life are now readily available? I am!

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