A History of Discrimination and the ADA

SUMMARY: Discrimination is when a person is treated unfairly compared to others. The United States has laws that prohibit many forms of discrimination, including discrimination against people with disabilities. This article explains why these laws are important. It also gives an overview of a few of these laws.

Disability-related non-discrimination laws address how our society thinks about disability and how our physical environment can be made more accessible. Without these laws, many people with disabilities would experience limited opportunities to be included in the workplace and to participate in their communities. In many cases, they would even be excluded.[1]

These laws allow people with disabilities to fight for their rights in a legal context. Without these laws, for example, if an employer found out you had a disability, they could fire you. Or, if other people felt “uncomfortable” when you entered a restaurant, you could be told to leave or refused service.

Rehabilitation Act

Along with the overall civil rights movement in the 1900s, people with disabilities began to organize and advocate for their rights. The first civil rights law related to disability in the United States was part of the Rehabilitation Act, which was passed in 1973. While the Rehabilitation Act consists of many sections, it is important to note that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act helped to change the way our society perceives disabilities. This change turned much of the discrimination that people with disabilities experienced in places like public schools—and other organizations that receive federal funds—into civil rights issues. The law also made people with disabilities a legitimate minority.[2]

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act covers only some instances of discrimination. It led to the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA.

[ Read: Rehabilitation Act ]

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA was passed in 1990. This piece of civil rights legislation covers many areas of life for people with disabilities. It applies to employment and to participation in state and local government. It also applies to participation in community life. In short, it helps to ensure that people with disabilities do not experience discrimination in all areas of public life.

The ADA was first drafted by the National Council on Disability. Two people introduced the ADA into Congress. They were Senator Lowell Weicker (R-CT) and Representative Tony Coelho (D-CA). After 2 years of advocacy and negotiation, in 1990, Congress passed the ADA with support from both the Democratic and Republican parties. The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

The ADA is a complaint-based law. This means that the only time when a law enforcement agency (i.e. Department of Justice, Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, or Office of Civil Rights) examines discrimination against people with disabilities is when that agency receives a complaint.

Read: What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act? ]

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA)

Eight years after the ADA was signed into law, Congress decided that the law was not living up to its potential to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. As a result, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act to clarify some of the basic rights of people with disabilities. The ADAAA was signed by President George W. Bush in 2008.

Before the ADAAA was passed, the ADA’s benefits to people with disabilities were undermined by several court decisions. For example, in the case of Title I regulations, which cover employment, if a case went to court, the person with a disability was often found to be either not sufficiently disabled to be covered, or too disabled to qualify for the job in question. In essence, the ADAAA reset the ADA to its original intent to prevent discrimination of people with disabilities.

Read: ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) ]

The Impact of the Law

These laws have had an enormous impact on the lives of many people with disabilities. When they experience discrimination, people with disabilities can now file charges against organizations, governments, or private entities. And, our society has become more aware that people cannot be treated unfairly. Even so, discrimination continues. For example, research tells us that employees with disabilities are more likely to start in entry level positions and more likely to stay in lower paying positions—and have fewer opportunities for career advancement.[3] People with disabilities also report less favorable attitudes and experience at work, including perceptions of fairness, less organizational support, and less fit with job and co-workers. They also report lower quality relationships with managers, less empowerment, and less engagement.[4]

Although many people have learned that a diverse community and workplace is a good thing, others are still learning.

More Information

Do you want to know more about the importance of Section 504 or about how it led to the passage of the ADA and then the ADAAA? Read A Movement Perspective, by Arlene Mayerson, on the DREDF website. (DREDF, or the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, was involved with passing this law back in the 1970s. DREDF continues to work to improve the lives of people with disabilities.)

You can also see current data on employment statistics from the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability and Policy.

In the End

Over the past half-century, the United States has made enormous changes in the laws surrounding disability. These laws have caused changes to our society’s beliefs about disability and to our physical surroundings. They have also enhanced the lives of many people. Unfortunately, these laws have not yet succeeded in providing full civil rights to people with disabilities.


[1] Mayerson, A. (1992). The history of the Americans with Disabilities Act: A movement perspective. Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

[2] Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. (1992). The history of the Americans with Disabilities Act: A movement perspective.

[3] Schur, L., Kruse, D., & Blanck, P. (2005). Corporate culture and the employment of persons with disabilities. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 23(1), 3–20; Yin, M., Shaewitz, D., & Megra, M. (2014). An uneven playing field: The lack of equal pay for people with disabilities. American Institute for Research.

[4] Nishii, L., & Bruyère, S. M. (2014). Inside the workplace: Case studies of factors influencing engagement of people with disabilities. DigitalCommons@ILR.


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