27th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Today marks the 27th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. Managing Attorney Ted Wenk is speaking at a celebration in Salem organized by the Oregon Commission on Disabilities. This statement is adapted from his remarks.

Statement from Ted Wenk, Managing Attorney:

Ted Wenk wearing a blue shirt.Today we celebrate a landmark civil rights law that has helped to usher forward tremendous social progress here in Oregon and across the country.

As we mark this moment in history and the incredible progress that’s been achieved so far as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we recognize that we still have far to go. We are committed to fighting relentlessly to enforce and expand the promise of the ADA.

The anniversary is also an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary grassroots advocacy and legal efforts that led to this legislative victory.

Earlier Civil Rights Protections for People with Disabilities

The ADA built on prior legislative efforts to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. More than 40 years ago, the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities, was signed into law. Senator Hubert Humphrey added this sentence, modified slightly, known as Section 504 to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act:

“No otherwise qualified individual with in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his , be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance….”

Grassroots Advocacy

But, unfortunately, it took four more years for the regulations implementing the law. And they were issued only after numerous nationwide rallies and sit-ins at Health Education and Welfare offices by people with disabilities and allies. One of the protesters, Kitty Cone, said:

“Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence.”

(For more about this history, watch “Lives Worth Living.”)

The Rehabilitation Act came behind the force of more than 20 years of advocacy by Independent Living activists, parents’ movements, education and outreach campaigns about IL philosophy, and, yes, lawsuits … regarding horrendous conditions at institutions warehousing people with disabilities.

Building on that remarkable progress, bipartisan support in Congress led to President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 27 years ago today.

This bill gave comprehensive and meaningful civil legal rights nationwide to people with disabilities. By meaningful I mean – basically the same civil rights which people without disabilities had already.

Fighting to Pass the ADA

Many of you remember that this landmark civil rights law didn’t just sail through Congress unimpeded. The passage of the ADA came only after many, many people spoke up – tens of thousands of people shared their stories of cruel and harsh discrimination, a national Task Force report issued supportive recommendations, the media was engaged, people even talked to those in other political parties.  And of course, demonstrations. 

In March of 1990, the ADA was stalled in committee. Roughly 500 people, many of them wheelchair users, gathered on the sidewalk in front of the White House, then marched to the Capitol where disability rights advocates were speaking. One speaker announced:

“We will not permit these steps to continue to be a barrier to prevent us from the equality that is rightfully ours.”

In what became known as the Capitol Crawl, 60 protesters responded by casting aside their mobility devices and dragging themselves up 78 steps to the Capitol entrance. The next day, more than 200 protesters for disability rights were arrested for occupying the Capitol Rotunda. One protester stated:

“Some people may have thought it was undignified for people in wheelchairs to crawl in that manner, but I felt that it was necessary to show the country what kinds of things people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis. We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in.”

Lessons for Today’s Battles

What lesson can we draw from that history? Once again, it’s time for people of good conscience to come together on all fronts using all methods of advocacy.

As everyone here is aware, we’re still pushing back on efforts to undermine key goals of the ADA: independent living, full participation, and economic self-sufficiency. We must remain vigilant in protecting the victories that we fought so hard for and in moving closer to achieving equality.

On June 6, I attended the Oregon Can’t Wait rally at the Capitol. To describe the experience, I’ll echo the words of Kitty Cone about feeling a sense of strength, pride, passion and compassion.

Today, we celebrate equal rights for Americans with disabilities. And we’re not going to just let this get turned back. Rather we’re going to push it forward every way we know how.

Thank you for all that you do. I’m honored to continue to fight untiringly to enforce an expand the promise of the ADA.