e d g e - education for disability and gender equity


1 Introduction
2 Why Enact the ADA?
3 What Does the ADA Do?
4 The U.S. Constitution
5 How Voters Influence Elected Officials
6 The Disability Vote
7 Setting the Stage for the ADA
8 Campaigning for the ADA
9 Activity
10 Resources

The first draft of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced in Congress in 1988. After that, the bill went through numerous drafts, revisions, negotiations, and amendments. All over the U.S., disability advocates began working to educate and organize the disability community, and to collect evidence demonstrating the need for a strong anti-discrimination law. A national campaign encouraged disabled people to write "discrimination diaries," to describe their daily encounters with biases and barriers. The diaries testified to the widespread discrimination experienced by people with all kinds of disabilities, in all spheres of life.

Justin Dart, Chair of the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of People with Disabilities, held public hearings in every state in the nation. Thousands of disabled people and their friends and family members gave testimony, providing a massive amount of evidence showing injustice and discrimination impacting their lives.

A new version of the ADA was introduced in 1989. From then on, the disability-rights movement mobilized to get the bill passed. This required the movement to convince members of Congress of two things:

  1. that a disability-rights law was right and necessary in order to give equal protection to citizens with disabilities; and
  2. that the disability community was an important, politically strong, and unified constituency, whose votes those members of Congress would have to earn.

All kinds of disability groups joined in a "coalition" (a temporary alliance of different people or groups united for a common cause). Advocates for deaf people, blind people, mentally disabled people, disabled veterans, and people with AIDS were just a few of the diverse groups involved in campaigning for the ADA. They were joined by other civil rights, religious, labor and civic organizations.

Unity was a very important aspect of this campaign. At one point, a senator proposed an amendment which would have allowed employers to discriminate against food handlers with HIV. AIDS advocacy groups warned that this would be a dangerous amendment, giving legitimacy to unfair prejudices against people with HIV. The other disability organizations joined with the AIDS groups in opposing this exemption -- even if it meant that the ADA would be defeated without that amendment. Similarly, amendments that would have weakened the requirements for transportation accessibility met firm opposition from all the groups, even those those members would not be directly affected by such a compromise. The coalition held firm against these challenges, and as it turned out, the Senate passed the ADA by a spectacular majority vote of 76 to 8.

Our Congress is a "bicameral legislature." This means that it has two "houses" -- the Senate and the House of Representatives. For a bill to become a law, it must be passed by both houses -- and then signed by the President of the United States.

In her article, "The History of the ADA: a Movement Perspective," advocate Arlene Mayerson recalls the dramatic movement of the bill through the House of Representatives:

"The Bill went to the House where it was considered by an unprecedented four Committees. Each Committee had at least one subcommittee hearing, and more amendments to be explained, lobbied and defeated. Grassroots organizing became even more important because by this time many business associations had rallied their members to write members of Congress to oppose or weaken the bill. The perseverance and commitment of the disability movement never wavered. Through many moments of high stress and tension, the community stayed unified. For every hearing the hearing room was full and for every proposed amendment to weaken the bill letters poured in and the halls of Congress were canvassed.... "House members... heard from witnesses who told their stories of discrimination. With each story, the level of consciousness was raised and the level of tolerance to this kind of injustice was lowered. The stories did not end in the hearing room. People with disabilities came from around the country to talk to members of Congress, to advocate for the Bill, to explain why each provision was necessary, to address a very real barrier or form of discrimination. Individuals came in at their own expense, slept on floors by night and visited Congressional offices by day. People who couldn't come to Washington told their stories in letters, attended town meetings and made endless phone calls."

Despite the convincing arguments and moving testimony presented by advocates and citizens, the ADA became stalled in the House. Faced with the opposition of powerful business interests, some Congress members preferred to leave the bill languishing in committees, so that they would not have to vote either way. The disability community realized that it would take one more final, dramatic action to get House members to bring the ADA to the floor for a vote.

In a historic moment, disability rights advocates came to Capitol Hill in March to push for passage of the ADA. After a large march and rally in front of the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a small group of people got out of their wheelchairs and climbed the steps. This striking image was broadcast on the national news that evening. The next day, after sending letters to both the House Majority and Minority Whips to ask for a meeting, the advocates gathered in the Capitol Rotunda and sent word to the Whips that the group had arrived for the meeting. Both Whips came down and spoke to the group, but advocates were frustrated and angered by their empty words. After chants echoed in the rotunda, police arrested 107 people with disabilities. The House got the message, and the ADA was finally passed in May.

The ADA was signed into law by President Bush on July 26, 1990. Over 3000 people gathered on the White House lawn, the largest number to witness a signing ceremony.

President Bush signing the ADA with Justin Dart and others
President George Bush signing the ADA (seated in center). Justin Dart (R).


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