Today’s post comes from Rebecca Brenner, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, D.C.
July marks the 25th anniversary of the historic moment when President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA prohibits employers, the government, and transportation, among other agencies and institutions, from discriminating against people with disabilities on the basis of their disabilities.
On July 26, 1990, a White House press release stated: “The American people have once again given clear expression to our most basic ideals of freedom and equality.”
Like other movements for freedom and equality, the disability community endured years of discrimination before the ADA established their equality under the law.
However, even before 1990, 1973 marked a turning point, when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act banned discrimination against people with disabilities in the allocation of Federal funds. Previous antidiscrimination laws regarding race, ethnicity, and gender influenced this new legislation.
This law helped to build solidarity among people with different disabilities, and from 1973 through 1990, the disability community battled against trends of general deregulation across the government.
Finally, on July 26, 1990, the ADA established “a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.”
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who championed the final version of the ADA, delivered part of his speech in support of the bill in sign language for his deaf brother to understand.
According to records held by the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC, Senator Harkin argued: “The American dream is the dream of opportunity for all. And when any American is denied the opportunity to contribute, we all lose.”
The ADA introduced a legal framework for an ongoing conversation about accessibility and a mission to accomplish it.
Still, the journey continues towards freedom and equality.
According to a 2014 accessibility intern working in Washington, DC, the balance between accessibility and aesthetics is delicate. Many building components are built for grandeur, including long, stone staircases. For example, she explained: “When they were first put in, no one was thinking of including an accessible ramp with a slope of 1:12. That means that if a staircase goes one foot up, it has to go twelve feet out.”
She also addressed the accessibility of public events: “For most visitors, the two-inch drop between the flooring in the tents and the grass on the National Mall is no big deal. For anyone in a wheelchair or scooter, however, those two inches are the difference between being stuck outside and getting something to eat or drink.”
Between 2001 and 2005 the National Archives in Washington, D.C. underwent a major renovation which made the building more accessible to visitors with disabilities.
Today, the National Archives accommodates all visitors in both the archives and the exhibits. Accommodations include wheelchair accessibility, properly constructed and displayed signage, and alarm systems with audio and visual warnings.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. from March 16, 2015, to July 30, 2015, in the Landmark Document display of the Rubenstein Gallery.