By Julia Heilrayne: Media, Research, and Policy Reporter
On July 26th, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, into law (1). The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people in employment, transportation, public accommodations, and government services (2). Basically, if you employ people to do a job, or if you receive government funding to offer a service to the public (such as transportation), it has to be available to people with disabilities. The passing of this law created sweeping changes in the way disabled people get around and navigate their world, but despite this, there are still many ways in which the country fails disabled people that should be addressed by future legislation.
One of the primary issues the ADA attempted to address, but did not do successfully is employment (3). Lex Frieden, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, pointed out “the ADA wasn’t intended to be an affirmative action law” and so he is “not surprised that companies haven’t been as aggressive [in hiring people with disabilities]” as they could have. That being said, one of the biggest subjects the ADA doesn’t address in employment is that many employers are able to pay wages based on their measure of productivity and these wages are able to go well below the minimum wage (4). It is estimated that in the past few years, roughly 420,000 disabled employees have been paid an average of $2.15 per hour (which is well below the federal minimum wage of $7.25), but wages have been recorded to be as low as $0.03 an hour (5). Given how poorly many disabled employees are often treated, future legislation regarding the rights of disabled people should include equitable treatment in the workplace as a top priority.
The ADA made many considerable strides for disabled people as an entire group, but one of the things this act didn’t touch on at all is the intersection of racism and ableism. By ignoring how these two issues intersect, the ADA, and therefore the vast majority of government services, separate disabled people into their own social hierarchy, mirroring the able bodied world as much as possible and creating even more barriers for disabled people of color (POC) (6). As a country, the United States is often quick to point out how common disabilities are in communities of color, while at the same time ignoring that we are directly responsible for creating the environments in which the incredibly high numbers of various disabilities have come to be (7). For example, as the National Disability Institute’s 2019 report on Disability, Poverty and Race in America found that “households of color, as compared to white households, are significantly less likely to have graduated from college, are twice as likely to be unemployed and poor, and have a median income of $43,300 as compared to $71,300” (8). The systemic racism that has created these conditions mean people of color are less educated about their health and have less money or insurance to treat health issues when they arise. This is just one of the many ways America has fostered unjust systems for the disabled community. To truly be inclusive of everyone with a disability and fix the complex problems people face, a future version of the ADA and/or other laws must address the rampant racism in the United States, both within and outside of the disability and medical community.
There are, of course, other ways in which the ADA could be better and future laws and legislation could address issues that disabled people face every day. This could include: allocating more money to special education programs, putting increased effort into increasing the accessibility of the internet (closed captioning, better image descriptors, etc.), and changing the ways in which older buildings have to comply to the ADA (as many are allowed to skate by without changing anything at all) (9). As disabled individuals, caretakers, families, friends, and other allies, it is our job to continue having these conversations and to continue pushing for legislation at both the national, state, and local level. We must have these conversations not only so that we can see an improvement, but so future generations of disabled Americans don’t have to continue fighting the same battles many of us are all too familiar with. To read more about the ADA, as well as learn about enforcement, read FAQs, and gather more information about the law, you can visit ada.gov.