On Exhibit: Americans with Disabilities Act

Today’s post comes from Alex Nieuwsma, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, forbids employers from discriminating against mentally or physically disabled employees. It also instituted accessibility requirements for buildings and public transportation, such as ramps for wheelchairs and posting signs in Braille.

The disability rights movement grew following the successes of the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s.

The movement’s first big success came with the Rehabilitation Act, signed in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits the discrimination of the disabled by any Federal agencies, Federal programs, or Federally contracted employers.

The private sector did not fall under the Rehabilitation Act and was still able to fire (or not hire) employees based solely on their disability. Additionally, many buildings were inaccessible to the disabled, especially those aided by wheelchairs. It soon became clear that a broader law encompassing all employers needed to be passed.

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines “disability” as, having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities.” The law not only prohibits discrimination; it also mandates that “reasonable accommodations” be made for those with disabilities. This means that the employer must be able to afford the accommodation and also that the disabled employee must be able to maintain the acceptable quality of work as done by non-handicapped peers.

The law also requires that all newly constructed public buildings follow regulations that allow disabled persons to maneuver on their own. These regulations include the construction of ramps, elevators, and accessible bathrooms.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act, which broadened the definition of a disability and more clearly defined the term “major life activities” in an attempt to reduce confusion and more clearly determine eligibility.

The Americans with Disabilities Act will be on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from March 16, 2015, to July 30, 2015, in the Landmark Document display of the Rubenstein Gallery.

President George H. W. Bush Signs the Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (National Archives Identifier 6037489)

President George H. W. Bush Signs the Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (National Archives Identifier 6037489)

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