Historian assesses 30 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Black and white photo of protesters in wheelchairs by San Francisco City Hall with one holding sign with text We Shall Overcome

In 1977, activists occupied the San Francisco Federal Building for 26 days to fight for disability rights. Photo by Anthony Tusler.

Catherine Kudlick, director of SF State’s Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, examines the legacy of the landmark legislation

After it was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would have a profound impact from coast to coast. Yet its beginnings can be traced to a protest right here in the Bay Area: a takeover of San Francisco’s Federal Building in 1977.

To learn more about the roots of the ADA and reflect on its 30th birthday, we called History Professor Catherine Kudlick, co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Disability History.” Kudlick is also director of San Francisco State University’s Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, which is commemorating the anniversary with free film and literary events this month. Kudlick says the ADA has changed American life in ways both subtle and profound.

What inspired the Americans with Disabilities Act? 

Many things. But a big one took place right here in San Francisco in 1977, when more than 150 people with disabilities occupied the Federal Building at Civic Center for nearly a month. Three years earlier, the federal government had passed legislation that basically guaranteed people with disabilities civil rights, and it was just one signature away from being enforced. For four years people across the country had been waiting, but different administrations kept stalling. The stakes were high and the implications were huge because once in force, the legislation prohibited any entities receiving government funding — schools, universities, hospitals, agencies, contractors — from discriminating against people with disabilities. Until this time, (and even today) people with disabilities didn’t think of themselves as having rights other than through goodwill and charity. Protests cropped up. Meanwhile, in a few hotspots across the country like New York, Washington, D.C., Denver and a few campuses like Berkeley and Urbana-Champaign, disabled people were starting to come together to form coalitions and demand rights.

After the amazing success of the 1977 protests in San Francisco, people started looking beyond entities receiving federal government and saying, we should apply this same set of criteria to private businesses, nongovernmental agencies. It took 13 years of behind-the-scenes dealing and negotiating, and in 1990 the Congress passed the ADA by an overwhelming majority — something that would never happen today, not just because of our hyper-partisan era, but because I suspect most politicians didn’t read the law carefully enough to think of it as anything but a feel-good charity moment. For leaders in disability communities, people with disabilities and for disabled people around the world, the law represented a key turning point, a beacon of hope for expanding the idea of civil rights.

How has the disability-rights movement intersected with other civil and human rights movements?

The [1977 San Francisco Federal Building] occupation included many people of color. It was supported by the Black Panther Party and gay men’s health groups. Harvey Milk and the mayor [George Moscone] supported them, [as did] Glide Memorial Church. The savvy disabled organizers had built very strong coalitions and nurtured these partnerships.

The problem was that these important partnerships and people of color who had been so essential in the disability rights movement’s success were left out of subsequent re-tellings of the stories, as disability history and disability in general were understood as being about white men in wheelchairs who enjoyed privileges that made them less threatening spokespeople. In the past five to 10 years, scholars are trying to remedy this with more stories and greater nuance, recognizing that the ADA leaves certain groups behind because of how it links civil rights and work as opposed to civil rights and a right to be in the world.

For example, the ADA doesn’t fix prevailing inequalities in U.S. society, particularly for people of color, who due to poverty and other compounding factors are disproportionately impacted by disability. According to some estimates, the number of disabled people of color serving time in prison might be as high as 40 to 50 percent — the numbers are hard to come by. People who are deaf, live with mental illness, cognitive and other disabilities may miss cues or act in ways considered hostile by untrained officers, compounding suspicions already triggered by racial prejudice. So the chances of being arrested and incarcerated if you have a disability and you’re a person of color are astronomically high. Disability adds a whole new layer to Black Lives Matter that are just beginning to be unpacked.

In what concrete ways has America changed in the 30 years since the ADA passed?

Literally, it’s concrete — the ramps into buildings and cuts on the sidewalks! All those were the result of physical barriers being removed and making the environment accessible to people with disabilities, for wheelchair users in particular, but of course also for delivery people, moms with strollers, skateboarders. A lot of people with disabilities have more rights to sue for employment discrimination and to challenge the barriers in society for education, for shopping, for any kind of routine thing that’s expected in daily life. Accessible public transit, that’s another piece of it. Just the ability to be out in the world, in general, is much better. It’s a big deal to get society to rethink the environment from the ground up.

The ADA is not a panacea. It’s a baseline beginning, as opposed to a culminating endpoint that makes everything alright.

How has the law changed life in more intangible ways?

The intangible part is the right of disabled people to be in the world and the right to be taken seriously. The ADA has made it possible for more people with disabilities to be out and about —  in schools, in restaurants, at work, in parks, shopping, etc. (at least before March!), making it more routine, more familiar, less scary. And to be considered somebody who’s not just being protected, but somebody who will make the world more interesting and more dynamic.