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- education for disability and gender equity
The Americans with Disabilities Act came about both because of citizen advocacy, and because of principles laid down by the founders of the U.S. government. Before we talk about how different groups developed and exert political influence, it is important that we understand some of the important principles which guide our government. Many of these principles are contained in the United States Constitution, which was adopted in 1789, just 13 years after the nation was established. The Constitution, a tattered document written and signed over two centuries ago, still drives much of the policy discussions and the decisions of the U.S. Congress, the President, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Each section of the Constitution addresses a different, significant aspect of our governmental system. The first ten amendments, which were included in the original document, are called The Bill of Rights. Other amendments were added later, in response to historical developments and/or Supreme Court decisions.
The 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1868, after slavery was abolished. The 14th Amendment guarantees all citizens "equal protection under the law." This means that no group of people should be subject to widespread, ongoing mistreatment, without being able to turn to the legal system for assistance. The 14th Amendment gives Congress the power to make laws which apply this idea of "equal protection," when it sees evidence that a particular group of people is systematically subject to discrimination.
Such congressional action does not happen automatically, of course. Legislation comes about as a result of political advocacy by people who have something at stake -- something to gain, or something to lose. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. This was the result of many years of organizing and activism on the part of organizations representing African-Americans, women, and other groups.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not address discrimination based on disability. Historically, people with disabilities have faced many different forms of prejudice and injustice, but the disability community would have to wait another 30 years for a law providing comprehensive civil rights protection.
During that 30 years, the disability community was working for laws granting limited rights in areas such as nondiscriminatory access to federal facilities, educational rights, and fair housing. Even more important than these specific policy changes, the disability community was gaining political skill, building organizations and networks, and gradually developing clout in Washington.
In the next several sections, we will learn how democratic ideals combined with citizen advocacy led to passage of another important civil rights law, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).