July 24, 2008
The Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was one of the landmark civil rights laws of the 20th century -- a long-overdue emancipation proclamation for millions of Americans with disabilities. As chief sponsor of the ADA in the Senate, I take pride in the progress we have made since the bill was signed into law on July 26, 1990.
In many ways the ADA has been a great success, and has helped integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream of society. Streets, buildings and transportation are more accessible for people with physical impairments. Information is offered in alternative formats, so that it is useable by individuals with visual or hearing impairments. Employers make accommodations in the workplace. These changes are all around us, and are so integrated into our daily lives that it is sometimes hard to remember how the world was before.
So on the 18th anniversary of this great civil rights law, we take time to remember the remarkable progress that we have made in the past 18 years. Yet, as far as we have come, there is still more work to do.
One challenge we face is that a series of Supreme Court decisions have greatly narrowed the scope of who is protected by the ADA.
As a result, people across this country with conditions that common sense tells us are disabilities are being told by courts that they are not in fact disabled and are not eligible for the protections of the law. These situations often arise in the workplace, where an employee with a disability is asking for a reasonable accommodation. Impairments that have now been held not to be disabilities include amputation, intellectual disabilities, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and muscular dystrophy.
These Supreme Court decisions have created a supreme absurdity: the more successful a person is at coping with a disability, the more likely it is for a court to find that they are no longer sufficiently disabled to be protected by the ADA. And if these individuals are no longer protected under the ADA, then their requests for a reasonable accommodation at work can be denied. Or they can be fired -- without recourse.
That is why I am working on legislation in the Senate to remedy this problem. No American with a disability should be subject to discrimination, particularly when they can still do the job with a reasonable accommodation. And all individual with disabilities deserve the chance to achieve the promise of the ADA – equal opportunity, full participation, the choice to live independently, and economic self-sufficiency.