The Pursuit of Radical Change: Perceptions and Realities of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The author was invited to address an audience in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2007, regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it might relate to the implementation of an anti-discrimination law in Sweden. This paper is an attempt to shed light on the ADA in that context. Discussions include 1) how American laws are made, 2) historical background relating to the development of the ADA, 3) a discussion of the Act itself, 4) enforcement mechanisms, 5) impact of the ADA, and 6) future directions. Internet publication URL:

By Steven E. Brown, 2007-05-31
Institute on Disability Culture
Center on Disability Studies
University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
Honolulu, HI USA


Thank you for inviting me to share perceptions and realities concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I have been pondering for some months now how I would address these topics. The dilemma I have faced is not only how to describe general facts and personal beliefs about the ADA, but how to discuss them in ways that will make sense in a Swedish context.

When I traveled in Germany and Hungary in the mid to late 1990s and attempted to respond to questions about the American government and how it impacted the daily lives of individuals with disabilities, I had a most difficult time. I finally acquiesced to the notion of most Europeans I met that Europe has a more centralized system of government than the US. While this is an easy way to differentiate, I can attest, that as an American citizen, who has encountered US disability laws, decentralization is not how our government feels to those of us whom it impacts. With that in mind, some brief context of how US law works.

How is the US Governed?

The simplest way to respond to the question, “how is the US governed?” is to state there are federal, state, and municipal laws. In theory, federal laws supersede state and municipal laws. So, for example, if a person with a disability applies for Social Security Disability Insurance, they do so at a local (that is, municipal level) office, but the eligibility criteria is established at the federal level. Frequently, individuals making these eligibility determinations, are hired at the state, as in the state of California or state of New York, level. Other municipal entities exist as well. For instance, each state has counties, or an equivalent government entity, which is a different kind of municipal government than a city. In some states, and in some contexts, this level also has to be considered.

This could become an even more complicated exposition, but I hope the point is understood. Perhaps instead of labeling the US system “decentralized,” we might use the term, “multiplization.” Calling the US system of government “multiplization” enables us to discuss the reality of US government operations, which includes multiple points of entry; multiple potential solutions, including legislative, executive, and judicial possibilities; and multiple points of appeals.

Each of these operational entities tends to have even more multiples, for example, with multiple points of entry to any one bureaucracy there may also be multiple levels of entry into that bureaucracy via municipal, state, or federal entities. So, decentralization is not an accurate label for the US “system” of government. Multiplization is a more descriptive term and a way to begin to see why answering any questions about how laws work becomes a complicated process.


How Do Laws Happen? Laws are generally created in one of two ways. A constituent, such as myself, or a group, proposes an idea, or even writes prospective legislation that is submitted to a legislator, who submits it to the body in which they represent me, or us. So, for example, I could suggest to my US (federal) Senator, an idea for legislation, or I could do the same with my Hawai‘i (state) Senator. If they like what I propose, they would then put forth the legislation in their legislative body, usually in words written by their staff.

A piece of proposed legislation, called a bill, is usually assigned to a committee. The committee generally has a great deal of power and can either kill or put forward the proposed legislation to their legislative body, say the US Senate, for debate. The same process occurs in the US House of Representatives. A legislator can also follow the same scenario if they have an idea they want to pursue. If both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives votes to pass the proposed legislation, then it usually goes to a Conference Committee of both bodies. This is because the legislation that passes both bodies usually has differences. The Conference Committee has to come to an agreement on legislation to return to their respective bodies for a final vote. If it passes both bodies once more then the bill goes to the US President, who can choose to sign the bill.

This is the process that occurred with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed in July 1990. But it is also important to understand that the ADA did not materialize out of thin air, historically speaking.


Leading Up to the ADA: Events from the 1940s to the 1970s that impacted the development of the ADA require some attention. These include World War II, the civil rights movement, and programs for students with disabilities at American universities.

Many Americans were disabled from World War II. Many other nondisabled veterans of this war had a difficult time re-entering society. One consequence of this disconnect between returning soldiers and the society they had left behind was housing legislation that provided funds beginning in 1948 to veterans with service-connected disabilities to purchase, build, or modify a house. Monies were also made available to obtain an education. This led to, for example, four World War II veterans beginning classes at UCLA in 1946 where they were assisted by CAL-VETS, volunteers who carried the vets into inaccessible buildings. (DeLoach, 1992)

It also led to the development of the first University-sponsored program for students with disabilities at the University of Illinois, first in the small town of Galesburg, then in Urbana-Champaign. Beginning in 1948, the program now known as the University of Illinois Disability Resources and Educational Services brought many individuals with disabilities from all over the world to the Illinois plains to obtain an education and move from there into mainstream society. (Brown, forthcoming 2007)

At the same time that many individuals with disabilities were obtaining a college education for the first time, there was also an acceleration of the civil rights movement to integrate blacks into mainstream American society. In the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court declared that separate classrooms were not equal. The Court determined that even if every aspect of the physical, educational, financial, and other structures of a school were equivalent, segregation still meant inequality because blacks and whites were not mixing with one another and therefore learning about, and from, each other.

In the early 1960s, first Ed Roberts, a post-polio, respirator-using quadriplegic, then other students with disabilities began to attend the University of California at Berkeley, and then many other universities. This enrollment of individuals like Ed into colleges led to the development of Disabled Student Services programs and then independent living centers. (Brown, 2003a)

Many students with disabilities also got involved in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the civil rights movement. At some point, these students realized there was another movement that needed to happen and that was the disability rights movement.

Combining what had been learned from the various human rights movements and their own experiences as individuals with disabilities in American society, individuals with disabilities saw a chance to end discrimination when the Rehabilitation Act was being reauthorized, or renewed, in the early 1970s. They got into the draft of the Rehabilitation Act, a section called “504.” This was a brief paragraph of about 40 words, but it packed a huge punch.

Section 504, as it has became known, stated essentially that it was against the law for the federal (US) government to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the area of employment or deny access to any program or activity receiving federal funding. Writing this law was easier than implementing it. Because Section 504 played such a crucial role in the development of ADA and because it is such a good example of how a bill, once it is signed into law, becomes active, it will be discussed in more detail in the next section.


How a Law Becomes Reality: Once a bill is signed into law, at least one bureaucracy comes into play, a regulatory body. With Section 504, Cabinet departments, which are branches of the executive arm of the federal government, needed to write regulations to implement the legislation. But no one wanted to do this. There were lots of reasons for this, including a fear it would be too expensive, and another fear, that it would create an enormous bureaucracy to oversee its implementation.

Section 504 became law in 1973, but regulations to apply it were not developed until 1977, after massive protests. During the Presidential election of 1976, Jimmy Carter promised a constituency of disabled Americans that if he were elected the Cabinet Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW, now divided into several Cabinet departments) would write regulations for 504. But after his election, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano, balked at the writing of these regulations because of the previously mentioned fears.

People with disabilities waited until the spring of 1977, then decided they could wait no longer. A coalition of organizations advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities decided to stage protests at strategic buildings throughout the US. The most successful of these protests was in San Francisco, where activists took over a federal building for close to a month. Some of those who sat in San Francisco journeyed to Washington, D.C., where they camped out on Califano’s front lawn demanding he sign regulations to implement Section 504.

These protesters were successful and HEW did indeed write regulations to implement Section 504. Other Departments followed as well.


Toward Independence: During the 1980s, activists at independent living centers and other advocacy organizations did their best to see to it that Section 504 was enforced. But it was clear that more was needed. In 1986, the National Council on Disability (then the National Council on the Handicapped) presented to the President a report entitled Toward Independence. In this report, NCD called for a law that might be called the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1986. (Toward Independence:

Although NCD was optimistic about the year, they were completely accurate in the need for such a law, and in its title.

During the four years between the NCD report and the passage of the ADA, numerous coalitions developed to advocate for the ADA. Perhaps most important were the discrimination diaries collected by Justin Dart, in each of the 50 US states.

In Oklahoma, for example, I told the story of being discriminated against in employment when I was told I could not write a book because I used crutches. The most poignant story, to the listening Congressman, may have been that of a young woman with cerebral palsy, who was denied entrance to a local movie theater because of her speech impairment. Stories like these, along with advocacy, such as leaving wheelchairs behind and climbing up the capitol steps, to protest the inaccessibility of the Capitol Building, all contributed to the passage of the ADA.

Although only four years lapsed between the issuing of Toward Independence and the successful passage of the ADA required years, maybe even decades of such efforts. When the law was passed, people with disabilities were jubilant, and have continued to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the ADA for the past seventeen years. But in some ways, at least, getting the law passed, was the easy part. After its passage, ADA needed to be implemented.

As with Section 504, numerous government organizations are responsible for providing regulations to implement ADA. To give two examples, the Department of Justice, an arm of the executive branch of government, has responsibility to determine some enforcement mechanisms of the law. But, at the same time, state and municipal governments can choose which of two building codes they wish to use to assess whether public accommodations or building facilities meet ADA requirements.

That then leads to the question what does the ADA require?

How the ADA Works?

The ADA builds on previous legislation affecting individuals with disabilities, especially the Rehabilitation Act of the 1970s, the much broader legislation in which Section 504 is found. Many definitions, including that of disability are, are taken from the Rehabilitation Act and moved into the ADA. I have learned that Swedish law defines disability as a: “permanent physical, mental or intellectual limitation of a person's functional capacity that as a consequence of injury or illness was present at birth, has arisen since or may be expected to arise.” (Prohibition of Discrimination Act, 2003).

The American definition, as you might imagine, from the introductory explanation of multiplization is more complicated. The framers of the ADA hoped to convey the belief that disability is not simply a condition of some kind of impairment, but also a relationship between individuals and their environment. ADA therefore defines someone to have a disability if they meet any of the following criteria:

 1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities, defined broadly as walking, seeing, hearing, thinking, access to public transportation, or access to education ;

 2. A record of such an impairment, generally for six months or longer; or

 3. Someone else perceives a person as having an impairment, such as facial scars that lead observers to believe there must also be head trauma.

The above definitions of disability are in the ADA applied via five Titles, or sections, as follows, as described by the Job Accommodation Network ( [Author comments in brackets]:

1. Employment (Title I) Business must provide reasonable accommodations to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment. Possible changes may include restructuring jobs, altering the layout of workstations, or modifying equipment. [For example, installing a lower kitchen sink for a wheelchair user, or purchasing voice-activated software for someone who does not see, or a different kind of chair for someone with a chronic back condition.] Employment aspects may include the application process, hiring, wages, benefits, and all other aspects of employment. Medical examinations are highly regulated.

2. Public Services (Title II) Public services, which include state and local government instrumentalities, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and other commuter authorities, cannot deny services to people with disabilities participation in programs or activities which are available to people without disabilities. In addition, public transportation systems, such as public transit buses, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. [For example, buses must have a way for wheelchair users to get on and off: a ramp, lift, or some other device.]

3. Public Accommodations (Title III) All new construction and modifications must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For existing facilities, barriers to services must be removed if readily achievable. Public accommodations include facilities such as restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, retail stores, etc., as well as privately owned transportation systems. [For example, if you come to Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, you will always see lots of visibly disabled people on the streets. There are curb cuts throughout the beach area, accessible beach chairs are available for rent, and hotels easily accommodate someone with a disability.]

4. Telecommunications (Title IV) Telecommunications companies offering telephone service to the general public must have telephone relay service to individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTYs) or similar devices. [When I, as a hearing person, want to call someone who is deaf, and if I do not have a TTY, I can call the relay service and they will use their TTY with the person who is deaf and voice for the hearing person.]

5. Miscellaneous (Title V) Includes a provision prohibiting either (a) coercing or threatening or (b) retaliating against the disabled or those attempting to aid people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA.

What are Legal Enforcement Mechanisms?

It would be wonderful to provide a simple response to the question, “what are the legal enforcement mechanisms of the ADA?” Alas, no such easy answer exists. The way the law is written enforcement is frequently up to individuals and must be accomplished through either existing bureaucracies or the courts, both of which fit the earlier description of multiplization.

Below is a summary of some enforcement mechanisms from the website of a firm, Access by Design, that specializes in ADA accessibility compliance (

“The United State[s] Department of Justice is the primary enforcing entity for Civil Rights discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The DOJ enforces the ADA's requirements in three areas --
• Title I: Employment practices by units of State and local government
• Title II: Programs, services, and activities of State and local government
• Title III: Public accommodations and commercial facilities (private sector)
 The DOJ publishes quarterly reports of its enforcement activities which include:
• ADA Litigation
• Formal Settlement Agreements
• Other Settlements, and
• Mediation

The Department's ADA enforcement activities and a wealth of related information can be found on the DOJ's ADA Home Page.

Other Federal agencies which have enforcement authority under the ADA include:

Department of Education which is designated by the ADA to enforce Title II in public elementary and secondary education systems and institutions, public institutions of higher education and vocational education (other than schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, and other health-related schools for which the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible), and public libraries. Complaints related to employment are referred to the EEOC or are reviewed by the Office of Civil Right in the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education web site has information about ADA as does ADA National Access for Public Schools Project.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title I provisions prohibiting discrimination in employment against qualified individuals with disabilities. The EEOC investigates complaints filed by job applicants or employees who believe they have been discriminated against under the ADA. The EEOC web site has a section on enforcement activities, guidances, and policies.

Department of Transportation enforces and provides technical assistance concerning the ADA provisions that require nondiscrimination in public and private mass transportation systems and services. A site search resulted in a list of ADA references on the DOT web site.

Federal Communications Commission enforces and provides technical assistance concerning the telecommunication provisions of Title IV of the ADA, which require that companies offering telephone service to the general public offer telephone relay services to individuals who use TDDs or similar devices. The FCC also enforces the requirements for closed captioning of federally produced or federally funded television public service announcements.”

Is Enforcement (that is, is the ADA) Working?

This is another question that is most difficult to give an easy, or even brief response. It also may not be the most important question. Another way to view the impact of the ADA is framed by my colleague Katharina Heyer, in personal correspondence:

“The point that I would make is to ask, how to we measure comprehensive social change? Congress really did have radical agenda when it passed the ADA, despite all the compromises that were made to assuage business fears. The problem is that the law is in effect implemented by the judiciary - in that it relies on lawsuits. Here comes the difficulty measuring ADA complaints that do not result in lawsuits. The EEOC and OCR have data on this, of course, but I have not seen comprehensive  studies. The cases that do end up in the courts face an increasingly  hostile judiciary. This is part of a larger political struggle between the  courts and Congress. The Supreme Court has been especially hostile,  refusing to consider Congressional intent in interpreting the ADA,  refusing to refer to the Regulations issued, deciding instead to use  the "pain language" of the statute and misinterpreting some of the  basic goals of the original "framers" of the ADA.”

I feel certain the above personal correspondence, as perceptive as it is, will not prove satisfactory, so I also include information from a 2005 report from the National Council on Disability, (, the agency responsible for promoting the ADA, in incipient form, in the 1980s. What the report shows is that Americans with disabilities still, fifteen years after the passage of the ADA still lagged far behind nondisabled Americans in many facets of life:

 “Americans with disabilities, on average, continue to attain a lower  level of education than those without disabilities. For example, almost 27  percent of adults ages 25 to 64 with a severe disability did not graduate  from high school. By comparison, 14.6 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 10.4 percent of individuals with no disability failed to graduate  from high school. Out of people ages 25-64, 43.1 percent of those without a disability graduated from college, compared with 32.5 percent of individuals  with a non-severe disability and just 21.9 percent of those with a severe disability.

 In addition, American adults with disabilities, on average, are poorer and  are far more likely to be unemployed than those adults without disabilities. For example, median earnings for people with no reported disability were $25,000, compared with $22,000 for people with a non-severe disability and $12,800 for those with a severe disability. In addition, more than one-fourth (25.7 percent)  of individuals with no disability had household incomes of $80,000 or more, in comparison with 18.1 percent of people with a non-severe disability and 9.2  percent of individuals with a severe disability. Approximately 56 percent of  adults ages 21-64 who had a disability were employed at some point in the  one-year period prior to participating in the survey. People with severe disability status reported the lowest employment rate (42 percent), compared with the employment rates of people with non-severe disabilities (82 percent) and those  with no disability (88 percent). Almost 27 percent of adults ages 25-64 with a severe disability live in poverty. By contrast, 11.2 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 7.7 percent of individuals with no disability live in poverty. Out of adults 65 years of age and older, 15 percent with a severe  disability live in poverty, while 8.2 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 5.9 percent of individuals with no disability live in poverty.

Finally, many Americans with disabilities live outside the economic and social mainstream of American life. Adults with disabilities have a lower likelihood  of living with family than adults without disabilities. People with disabilities  were more likely than people without disabilities to live alone or with  non-relatives: among people 25 to 64 years old, 18.9 percent without disabilities lived alone or with non-relatives, compared with 23 percent with a non-severe disability and 27.8 percent with a severe disability. People 25 to 64 years old with  a severe or non-severe disability were more likely to be the householder in a male- or female-headed household (12.7 percent) than people without a disability (8.8 percent). Of those ages 15 to 64, 36 percent with a severe disability used a computer, and 29 percent used the Internet at home. By contrast, individuals with  a non-severe disability or with no disability had substantially better computer access with 60.7 percent using a computer and 50.9 percent using the Internet at home.

In addition to these figures, the data from a 2004 Survey conducted by the National Organization on Disability in conjunction with the Harris polling organization provides further insight into hurdles faced by persons with disabilities in enjoying community opportunities. According to the survey, persons with disabilities are twice as likely as those without to have inadequate transportation (31 percent compared to 13 percent), have a higher likelihood of going without medical care (18 percent compared to 7 percent), and are less likely to socialize,

eat out, or attend religious services. In addition, a full one-third of individuals with disabilities using assistive technology say they would lose their independence without it, illustrating its fundamental importance in promoting independent living.”

A more optimistic view of how the ADA has changed American life for the better is unsurprisingly advanced by the current Bush administration (

 “The ADA is bringing about significant changes in our hometowns and communities. Thanks to the ADA, people with disabilities are participating in unprecedented numbers in civic life and are gaining equal access to the benefits and services that local government provides. All across America, towns and communities are taking steps to make their programs and services accessible.

Town halls and courthouses across America are installing ramps and providing accessible parking and restrooms. The use of sign language interpreters and assistive listening devices is increasing at public meetings and in court proceedings, allowing full participation by people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Our police are improving communication with deaf citizens in the arrest process, and public safety officials are saving lives by making 9-1-1 systems directly accessible to those who use TTY's (teletypewriters) to communicate over the phone system. Communities are reshaping recreation and social service programs to allow full access by people with disabilities.

The ADA facilitates access by people with disabilities to all aspects of the free market system. The ADA's reach extends to recreational activities, shopping, business and leisure travel, and health care. Travel opportunities have expanded. Rental car companies increasingly provide cars with hand controls, and hotels across the country provide a widening array of accessible hotel rooms. Other barriers to transportation across the country have fallen as well. Most public buses now have lifts, and private transit – from airport shuttle vans to over-the-road buses – are becoming accessible in increasing numbers. Medical care is more accessible due to the proliferation of sign-language interpreter services, accessible rooms, and accessible examination tables.”

Where has the ADA had the biggest impact?

After my last visit to Europe, while I was writing my essay, “Some Reflections on the ADA,” I revisited the preamble of the ADA and found the sentence describing the ADA, as a “clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals.” (Brown, 2003 b p. 167) As Heyer states in the quote in the previous section, “Congress really did have radical agenda when it passed the ADA.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest impact has been an attitudinal and social one. A few hours ago I made a reservation at a local restaurant. I let the restaurant know that one in our party would be a wheelchair-user. There was no panic in the reservationist’s voice. She took the information in stride. Pre-ADA, that conversation might have had a very different outcome, with all the reasons why this moderately accessible restaurant could not accommodate someone using a wheelchair. The unstated, but hardly unconsidered, consequence of this exchange is that our party will be at least one that integrates that restaurant tonight with a diner with a visible disability. This is an example of the social change that the founders, writers, and supporters of the ADA sought.

The National Council on Disability’s ADA Impact Study ( declared “that significant strides have been made in such areas as transportation and accessible public facilities, including restaurants, theaters, stores, and museums.” They also described changes in telephone relay services being used at high levels; greater access in transit systems; an increasing percentage of Americans with disabilities voting; and asserting that the “education gap between people with disabilities and people without disabilities is shrinking and people with disabilities are attending post-secondary institutions in record numbers.”

Clearly, though, the ADA has not yet had the impact many of us hoped it would more quickly achieve with continued abysmal employment statistics and a lack of affordable, accessible housing for people with disabilities, to name just two areas of remaining barriers to full societal participation.

A recent report sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research, entitled The Future of Disability in America (which has released some preliminary publicity on various promotional websites-see, for example,, focused on health care states:

Currently, more than 40 million Americans – at least one in seven – have physical mobility, sensory, or other impairments or limitations….The

ADA -- and other policies aimed at reducing barriers for people with disabilities -- has helped to increase recognition of environmental obstacles, but

its implementation and enforcement have often been disappointing, the committee said. Ironically, even within health care facilities, people with disabilities encounter equipment and surroundings that are not designed to accommodate their needs -- for example, examination tables and weight scales that are difficult for people in wheelchairs to use.

To start to conclude with a more balanced scholarly perspective, Heyer writes:

Effectiveness is notoriously difficult to measure, except for Title One issues. There is quite a lot of literature discussing effects on employment rates and especially the methodological questions of how to measure this. As in, shifting definitions of who counts as disabled (under SSI/SSDI and ADA), types of workers, types of employment. For example, workers who become disabled while they are hired tend to have better protections/chances of keeping their jobs with accommodations than workers who apply for a job while disabled. Another interesting statistic is that the employment rate of workers with (mild) mental retardation in the free market (rather than sheltered workshops) has actually increased under ADA because large companies have received incentives for supported employment.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of the difficulties of enforcing the ADA is the need to do so within courts and bureaucracies. There is a long list of court cases that have not seemed to support the intent of the ADA. The judiciary, unfortunately, do not seem to understand in many cases, either the intent or spirit of the law.

 I can also personally attest, having lived in three different states since the passage of the ADA, that there are numerous regional differences that occur. In some ways, this goes back to multiplization, but it also reflects the overall attitude of the geographic region one lives in. This includes the number of advocates, lawyers and otherwise, who understand and promote the ADA. There is also some sense that Americans might have been better off educating the public about disability issues prior to passage of such a radical law. I do not know if this would have helped, but I do know that fifteen or so years after the passage of the ADA we still have a plethora of media stories that highlight individual “overcoming” activities, or focus on what makes someone with a disability “pitiful” rather than perceiving disability issues as social, economic and cultural ones.

An attempt to rectify this watering down of the ADA by the courts and the continued emphasis on disability as some kind of “tragedy” has led to the development of a bill introduced in the US Congress called the ADA Restoration Act. A petition in support of this Act states (

Support the passage of an ADA Restoration Act to keep the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act!

WHEREAS, the promise of the ADA remains unfulfilled for far too many of America's 56 million citizens with a disability;

WHEREAS, the courts have narrowly interpreted and weakened the ADA, leaving millions of American citizens with disabilities unprotected from disability discrimination;

AND WHEREAS, the National Council on Disability and other disability organizations have drafted language to restore civil rights protections under the ADA;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the undersigned asks Congress to pass -- and the President to sign into law -- an ADA Restoration Act to keep the promise of the ADA and assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for Americans with disabilities.

At the same time there is an ongoing 50 state tour called the “Road to Freedom” Tour, which is a photographic exhibit telling the story of the grassroots people’s movement that led to the passage of the ADA. Emulating Justin Dart, the father of the ADA, who traveled to each state collecting “discrimination diaries” that helped lead to the passage of the ADA, the Road to Freedom is also collecting stories of success from the ADA’s existence and how much we have yet to achieve.

Conclusion: Radical Legislation

For centuries, and in every identified society, at least some individuals with disabilities have been discriminated against based on their disabling conditions. Labeled “in-valid” “useless eaters,” and a myriad of other pejorative appellations, it comes as no shock that individuals with disabilities have not yet achieved parity with other groups.

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides for many specific solutions to specific problems, such as employment discrimination. But much more importantly, ADA continues, with its words, and its spirit, to lead the way for comprehensive social change. That is why, despite all its problems and frustrations, the ADA is a radical piece of legislation. To fulfill its long-term promise, ADA requires implementation and enforcement, as is mandated within the law itself. No matter what society adapts similar legislation or authority, effectiveness will require the support of its society, culture, and legal system.

To conclude in a decidedly non-academic fashion, I use the words of Jeff Moyer, singer and songwriter, who was one of the activists who sat in the San Francisco federal building, demanding the signing of 504 regulations. These lyrics are pre-ADA, but I believe they continue to resonate with exactly the tone we all seek from the ADA’s implementation:

Do You See Me  As An Equal?

Do you see me as an equal?
In your eyes do I unfold?
Do you see me for the person that I am?
Do you see me as an equal?
Free of labels, names and signs?
I’m living whole and well within my plan?

They say don’t judge the books just by their covers.
How can we do less by sisters and brothers?
For we are truly equal
One Spirit, just the same.
Let’s serve each other as we are
Living on this plane.

Did you know that human difference is how were meant to be?
But only when we know that are we whole.
For our differences make us stronger,
Each with our abilities.
Together we comprise one family whole.

They say don’t judge the books just by their covers.
How can we do less by sisters and brothers?
For we are truly equal
One Spirit, just the same.
Let’s serve each other as we are living on this plane.

It’s true here in me and there in you.
Just behind what we can see, what we can do.
Together we can truly be known for our humanity
Living, loving, laughing – being free.

Now we share this tiny planet home
As one great family.
Though different as the fishes of the sea.
But when blinded by appearance
We disable those we see-
But we handicap our own humanity.

They say don’t judge the books just by their covers.
How can we do less by sisters and brothers?
For we are truly equal
One Spirit, just the same.
Let’s serve each other as we are,
Protect each other as we are,
Love each other as we are,
living on this plane –
Then we’ll all be whole once again.
Then we’ll all be whole, once again.

©Jeff Moyer 1986



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Steven E. Brown, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in Honolulu. He is also co-founder of the Institute on Disability Culture. He may be contacted at: