When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, it opened a new era of equality and opportunity in our country. Today, 30 years after the law’s signing, we celebrate how the ADA makes our nation stronger and truer to its founding principles.
Before the ADA, building owners were not required to make accommodations like sidewalk ramps or curb cuts for people with disabilities. In 1990, fewer than half of public buses were adapted for people with disabilities. And most private employers could pass up the opportunity to hire a person with a disability without giving second thought to how practical it would be to accommodate the worker's disability in the workplace.
The ADA changed this. It increases access to public places and services, prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability and requires reasonable accommodations of the disabilities of workers, customers and the general public. By enabling Americans with disabilities to participate more fully in society, the ADA magnifies the talents, insights and humanity in our workplaces and public spaces.
Tom Fasnacht of Pennsylvania is one of countless American workers who have benefited from an accommodation of their disability. Multiple sclerosis had forced him out of his role as a field foreman on commercial construction projects. He was able to return to the industry when a trade organization offered him a job as an instructor in its apprenticeship program. Reasonable accommodations, which included the flexibility to attend medical appointments and an air-conditioned facility for aspects of his work, enabled him to continue his career.
Because of the ADA, millions of Americans like Fasnacht can bring their skills to the workforce and share in the dignity of work. And this brings all of us closer to America’s founding promise — a nation where the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is available to all.
The ADA’s impact has gone beyond the letter of the law. It has helped change Americans’ perceptions of people with disabilities, bringing about a fuller appreciation of their capabilities and of the obligation we have to remove the obstacles and misperceptions that prevent them from contributing all they’re capable of.
In the decades since the ADA was passed, other developments have deepened appreciation for the spirit underlying it. We’ve welcomed hundreds of thousands of “wounded warriors” home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are men and women whom we admire, owe a debt and want to fully integrate into civilian society. By learning to accommodate them, we learn more about how to accommodate all people with disabilities.
Americans who oppose abortion — including abortions targeted at the unborn with disabilities — have come to appreciate more fully that with this opposition should come a commitment to helping those born with disabilities achieve a happy, fulfilling life. And our growing understanding and candor regarding mental illness has brought disability closer to home for many of us, enriching our recognition of the range of disabilities Americans face and of the need for a supportive culture.
Last year, we were shown something else about accommodating people with disabilities — the compelling inclusiveness of a booming economy. With unemployment then approaching all-time lows and nearly a million more job openings than people looking for work, employers were extending opportunities to workers who historically have received fewer opportunities in the workplace. African American and Hispanic unemployment in the U.S. hit all-time lows. So, too, did unemployment for Americans with disabilities, who were also participating in the labor force at a near-record rate just before the novel coronavirus struck in March.
The pandemic, which has challenged all Americans, poses special challenges for Americans with disabilities. Ensuring their continued progress to full participation in the workplace and civic life is an added reason to take the measures needed now to defeat the virus, and to rebuild the vibrant, inclusive economy the nation was enjoying just months ago.
Eugene Scalia has served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor since September 2019.