30 Years Later, Disabled Americans Are Still Fighting For Their Civil Rights

The Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, declaring equality for disabled people across the country. But activists say the work isn’t done.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

They were ready to do anything.

It was March 1990, and a bill that could potentially end discrimination against people with disabilities was winding its way through Congress. Many disability activists feared that if they didn’t do something drastic, the legislation could get squashed, especially since it was opposed by pro-business groups.

And so in the middle of the day, amid rallies and speeches calling for accessibility and equal rights, hundreds of disabled people left behind their wheelchairs, canes, crutches and other mobility aids and began to crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, demanding that lawmakers pass the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Disability activist Anita Cameron was among them.

“I actually started out dragging my friend’s wheelchair up the stairs. I will never forget — it was such a hot day,” Cameron, who has multiple sclerosis, low vision and autism, among other disabilities, told HuffPost. “I got so tired, and so I handed his chair off to others, and I sat down and then fought my way back up the rest of the stairs.”

Then 24, Cameron wasn’t new to protesting. She was a member of the American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (now called the American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, or ADAPT), a national grassroots organization that works to advance disability rights. She had already marched in several demonstrations calling for public accommodations and gone to hearings where disabled activists spoke about why a civil rights law was needed.

But this wasn’t like other protests.

“Something told me this was going to be something different,” said Cameron, now 55. “I felt kind of like we were crawling our way into history.”

Some protesters physically carried each other up, while others inched forward on their hands and knees, fueled by people cheering at the top, according to oral history compiled by the magazine New Mobility.

The day became known as the Capitol Crawl, a symbolic demonstration of the barriers that people with disabilities had faced for decades and one of the most well-known events in modern disability history.

“Something told me this was going to be something different. I felt kind of like we were crawling our way into history.”

- Anita Cameron, member of ADAPT and protester at the Capitol Crawl in 1990

But they weren’t done. A couple of days later, Cameron and dozens of other disability activists swarmed the Capitol Rotunda.

“We took it over, blocked off the doors, and we began chanting so loud that our chants reverberated throughout the building: ‘ADA now! ADA today!’” Cameron said.

A few lawmakers came to try to persuade the protesters to leave, but that only inspired them to chant louder. Eventually, “hordes” of police officers came in to seize them, Cameron said. That day, 104 people were arrested. Cameron was No. 81.

Cameron, still a member of ADAPT, believes that “the takeover” of the Capitol Rotunda was even more effective than the Capitol Crawl in helping to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed in July 1990.

“I wouldn’t change it. I’d do it again over and over,” she said.

Since then, the Americans With Disabilities Act has transformed the lives of disabled people everywhere. But three decades later, many disability rights activists, including Cameron, say problems of inaccessibility and the stigma against disabled people persist.

The Before And After

More than 61 million people with disabilities live in the United States, making it the largest minority group in the country. Before the ADA was passed, accessible public restrooms and transportation weren’t mandated. Restaurants could deny service to people with disabilities. Employers could legally fire — or refuse to hire — someone because of their health conditions, and many disabled kids couldn’t attend schools alongside nondisabled children and were often sent to institutions instead.

Much of that changed when Bush signed the landmark ADA, which made it illegal to discriminate against disabled Americans in both the public and private sector. It “guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life,” according to the ADA government website. It was also a recognition of disabled people as a community deserving of respect, dignity and the right to make their own choices about how to live their lives.

“One of the meaningful parts of the ADA was an acknowledgment on the part of Congress that discrimination not only existed, but it existed across the country and it was a responsibility of the government to intervene once such discrimination was proven to protect the rights of disabled people,” said Judith Heumann, an international disability rights activist and wheelchair user.

President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans With Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 1990. With him are the Rev. Harold Wilke (rear left), Evan Kemp, chair of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (left), Sandra Parrino, chair of the National Council on Disability, and Justin Dart, chair of The President's Council on Disabilities. Jefferson Memorial is in the background.
President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans With Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 1990. With him are the Rev. Harold Wilke (rear left), Evan Kemp, chair of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (left), Sandra Parrino, chair of the National Council on Disability, and Justin Dart, chair of The President's Council on Disabilities. Jefferson Memorial is in the background.

Many advocates said the ADA might not have been passed if it weren’t for other campaigns for disability rights legislation. According to Jaipreet Virdi, a disability historian at the University of Delaware, more than 50 pieces of legislation on disability rights were passed from the 1960s to the 1990s, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which banned disability discrimination within federal programs, the Air Carrier Access Act, which was intended to make air travel accessible, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Section 504 was particularly significant because it helped determine who would be protected (according to the legal definition of “disability”) and what counted as “discrimination,” said Heumann, who helped lead the 504 Sit-in, a late 1970s nonviolent occupation of federal buildings that lasted 28 days and successfully led to the signing of the anti-discrimination law.

“It really paved the way to allow for the ADA to move forward,” she said. “If we didn’t have a robust 504, we would not have gotten the ADA because of many of the issues that needed to be worked out.”

Cameron, who attended the University of Illinois in the 1980s, recalled just how different her experience as a student was before and after the ADA and IDEA were signed into law.

“I had no support, no nothing. I couldn’t even continue because my disabilities got to the point where I was told to find another career path,” Cameron said. “I remember one of my professors telling me it was lazy for me to record my lectures. It didn’t matter that I’m almost totally blind.”

“And then I went back to university to get my degree in computer information systems [in 1996], and it was totally different,” she continued. “I was able to get my audiobooks, I was able to get note takers, I was able to get extra time to take tests, things of that nature. Going to school as someone with a disability was a whole lot easier.”

For Cameron and many other disabled people, becoming more integrated into society also had a profound psychological effect, leading to a sense of disability pride to replace years of internalized ableism.

“We were able to get out more, be on the buses, go to the movies, go to the grocery stores. It allowed us to get out more and do things,” Cameron said. “We developed this pride to say, hey, we’re not going to be hidden anymore.”

Who Got Left Behind

But many disabled Americans are still fighting for their civil rights, partly due to persistent ableism and partly because adhering to the ADA requires enforcement from a dedicated White House administration.

Racism and poverty, too, powerfully shape disabled people’s lives. Disabled people are more likely to be poor and remain unemployed than nondisabled people. Black disabled people are at greater risk of being killed at the hands of police. People with disabilities under the Supplemental Security Income program are barred from possessing a certain amount of money in assets, which has prevented many from taking new jobs or getting married — or making the painful, unwanted decision to divorce. Workplace discrimination and inaccessible voting remain prevalent.

“It’s hardly perfect,” Virdi, managing editor of the Disability History Association’s blog All Of Us, said of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “Despite 30 years in place, businesses and employers still perceive the ADA as an option rather than a legal requirement to provide service. When they are forced to provide access, it’s usually the bare minimum.”

The coronavirus pandemic has also shed light on several barriers that continue to exist due to structural ableism. For example, many employers and schools began normalizing accommodations for everyone — such as work-from-home policies — only after COVID-19 hit, despite the fact that disabled people have fought for such access for years, long after the ADA was enacted.

People with disabilities, particularly those who are also Black, Latinx, elderly and/or living in nursing homes, are dying of the coronavirus at a disproportionate rate. Some state health care systems are under investigation for drawing up guidelines on how to ration health care during the pandemic, with disabled people’s lives being viewed as among the least valuable. And many nondisabled people have created ‘exemption ID cards’ claiming that the ADA protects their right to not wear face masks — perpetuating the notion that actually disabled people are “fakers.”

In this context, many disability advocates are saying that the ADA needs to be better implemented and enforced.

“Every civil rights bill is basically only a piece of paper, and the critical thing is it has to be enforced by the Justice Department,” said former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who was a primary sponsor of the ADA. “So it depends on who’s president as to whether you have an effective ADA.”

While the ADA had mostly seen broad support from both Republicans and Democrats throughout the years, including significant efforts by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to help strengthen and enforce the law, Coelho said that disability rights is no longer a bipartisan issue and that attempts to gut the law continue.

In 2018, a GOP-backed bill gutting the Americans With Disabilities Act passed the House and made its way to the Senate. The proposal allowed ADA-noncompliant businesses to take 60 days to respond to complaints submitted by disabled patrons and gave them an additional 120 days to rectify their lack of accommodations.

As in previous years, protesters from ADAPT swarmed the U.S. Capitol and chanted “Hands off the ADA” before getting arrested.

“I was one of the ADAPT members arrested in the [House] Gallery at Congress when members of the House were voting on that bill,” Cameron said. “When it passed, it wasn’t a pretty scene. I was one of the activists dragged out.”

Facing staunch opposition from lawmakers including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran and wheelchair user, the bill ultimately died in the Senate.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, has in recent months integrated disability rights into his campaign. If Biden wins the presidential race in November and Democrats regain control of the Senate, Coelho said, it could be an opportune time to consider amendments to strengthen the ADA.

“Having leaders in the Congress creates the atmosphere to make it again bipartisan and bicameral, and I’m optimistic it’s going to go there,” Coelho said.

Building Community

Those who grew up when the ADA and IDEA were signed are now considered to be the “ADA generation.” The term was coined by disability activist Rebecca Cokley, who said these individuals made up “the first generation who was asked what they wanted to be when they grow up and had the laws in place to make it more of a reality.”

But many people still don’t know the law exists or that they have health conditions that would fall under the ADA.

“We have a major issue in the disability community that others still are afraid to acknowledge they have a disability or really may not know that they are protected by the law,” Heumann said.

Coelho said supporting disability rights behooves everyone, including those who are nondisabled.

“I take the position for Americans who don’t have a disability that the ADA is your insurance policy because if you develop a disability at 30 or 40 or 50, people can’t discriminate against you,” Coelho said.

“I take the position for Americans who don’t have a disability that the ADA is your insurance policy because if you develop a disability at 30 or 40 or 50, people can’t discriminate against you.”

- Former Rep. Tony Coelho, primary sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act

And individuals who are multiply marginalized or have certain types of disabilities are still often ignored even in the disability community — a pattern that has existed since before the ADA.

“There are lots of us Black folks who put our bodies on the line, fighting for the Americans With Disabilities Act as well,” Cameron said, citing Black Panthers who advocated alongside disabled people and the late Congressman Major Owens (D-N.Y.), who was “instrumental” in getting the ADA passed. “But our stories often get whitewashed, our participation and what we’ve done.”

Being a Black disabled activist also comes with the risk of being tokenized even in supposedly welcoming circles, Cameron said, adding that a “hierarchy” within the disability community means some people are listened to over others.

“I had to learn the hard way that you can’t be Black in the disability rights movement and be your true authentic self,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing right now in the disability community — we really have to address the structural racism that permeates our organizations. And we have to look at the ableism that allows us to not take people who are neurodivergent or have intellectual disabilities seriously.”

By and large, the Americans With Disabilities Act has been a “boon” for people with disabilities and has managed to address many inequalities, Cameron said. But it will require a sustained, intentional and collective effort from everyone to dismantle the structural racism and ableism that continue to permeate many spaces that the ADA is supposed to protect.

“There’s just so much that we’re here 30 years later, we shouldn’t have to be figuring out the Americans With Disabilities Act,” she said. “But unfortunately, we are.”

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