The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 30 years ago, but many are still struggling

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 30 years ago, but many are still struggling
Source: Rutgers University/Photography Mel Evans

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability – formally defined as an individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits life activities.

The law is made up of five main parts, detailing provisions on employment, public services, public accommodations, telecommunications and miscellaneous items that don’t fit in the previous four.

For employment, workplaces are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of a person’s disability and are required to give “reasonable accommodation” to meet the needs of disabled individuals at work.

The public services and accommodations sections make it illegal for businesses and other organizations to deny services to disabled Americans while necessitating that infrastructure is suitable for disabled access, such as the installation of ramps or posting signs in Braille.

The telecommunications section makes it necessary for public telecoms companies to include services for the deaf and the miscellaneous section makes coercion, threats or retaliation against a person based on their disability a crime.

In the thirty years since the passage of the ADA, many of the law’s provisions have been adopted and followed, giving disabled Americans broader access to American services, jobs, opportunities and a sense of well-being.

That said, many disabled Americans face ongoing struggles not only with societal discrimination over their condition, but also with employment opportunities, one of the main drivers for the creation of the law.

“Last hired, first fired”

Speaking with TMS, Lisa Schur – professor and co-director of the Program for Disability Research at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations along with her husband, professor Douglas Kruse – while progress has been made under the act, there is still much to be done.

“You just have to look around and you’ll see curb cuts, ramps, accessible buses, and stores that welcome service dogs,” Schur said, commenting on the tangible changes in society based on ADA provisions.

“But there’s still a long way to go. People with disabilities still face stigma and discrimination, and have a much harder time finding good jobs,” she added.

According to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 19.3% of Americans with disabilities were employed in 2019. Between February and June 2020, however, that rate fell to 12.1%. If taking into account only working-age individuals (16-64 year olds) just 30.4% of disabled men and 26.4% of disabled women were employed in June 2020.

For professor Kruse, who was involved in a car accident due to a drunken driver in 1990 and suffered a spinal cord injury, employment is the biggest challenge facing people with disabilities.

“Their employment improved in the tight labor markets of the past four years, but the COVID recession has erased many of those gains as people with disabilities have seen greater job losses,” Kruse told TMS.

“Thirty years after the ADA, it’s still true that people with disabilities are ‘last hired, first fired’,” he added.

In one study published in 2017 by Schur, Kruse and other researchers, applicants that disclosed a spinal cord injury or Asperger’s syndrome in their cover letters were 26% less likely to hear back from recruiters, suggesting significant gaps remain in the ability of people with disabilities to land jobs.

According to Schur and Kruse, there are other important issues facing those with disabilities in America as well, including access to voting, where there is a persistent voting gap among disabled populations compared to those without disabilities.

Moving forward

Per disability rights organizations, the onset of the COVID-19 health crisis has put additional pressure on disabled individuals, especially regarding access to care and the well-being of those with existing health conditions.

As for employment, although data from the past several years showed that those with disabilities were making progress in the job market, Kruse notes that the ongoing health crisis is eroding these gains.

With the virus potentially altering social expectations regarding the feasibility of remote work, coupled with increased digitalization and technological change, however, there could be an opening for disabled individuals to carve out new ways to contribute to society.

For Schur, there are also encouraging signs that society is becoming increasingly accepting of those with disabilities and that a growing number of organizations and resources are available to help them navigate both their disability and society at large.

“Campaigns like REV UP! are using the internet to mobilize people with disabilities to vote, especially young ones. The ‘ADA generation’ of people born after the law was passed have grown up with the idea that they have rights and expect to participate fully in society,” Schur said.

Many others, she noted, continue to fight for their full recognition in society.

“One of the slogans of the disability rights movement is ‘Nothing about us without us,’ and the more that people with disabilities are involved in democracy, the more inclusive our society will become,” Schur concluded.

Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at