Celebrating 30 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

On Thursday, July 23, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities hosted a virtual briefing (which we co-hosted) to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act — a landmark civil rights law signed by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The remarks below were delivered during the briefing by our president and CEO Vanita Gupta.

We are commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we also today recognize in commemorating this important legislation — this landmark law — how much more work remains to live fully into its promise.

America right now is facing truly a confluence of unprecedented crises: As a nation, we are in pain — we are outraged at state violence against Black people and other communities of color. And given this country’s history of erasure and denying marginalized people a voice, we have to be ever vigilant to guard against obstacles to full participation in our society — especially amid these uncertain days.

As you know, state violence has been happening against a backdrop of a global pandemic and economic recession. Here in the United States, the pandemic’s devastating effect on people with disabilities, Black and Brown people, Native Americans, low-income people, and immigrants is really an indictment of our failure to rid American institutions of longstanding, systemic racism and inequality.

And while the pandemic has upended everyone’s lives, it has not affected everyone equally. In fact, more than 40 percent of deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in congregate settings — that includes residential care communities, nursing facilities, prisons and jails. And the majority of those dying are Black and Brown people. Too often the racial justice lens is missing when folks talk about congregate settings and disability rights — and this pandemic has laid bare the very stark disparities and the cost of our nation’s silence.

We can and must do better. This tragic moment in many ways also presents an incredible opportunity — one that should be imbued with hopefulness to confront and reckon with injustice. That’s really why I’m so grateful to join all of you today as we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

History teaches us that the beauty of America’s story — and really the promise of its legal framework — is that we, as a country, can evolve. And that the arc of our nation’s progress in disability rights affirms this truth.

After decades of investments in treatment, research, and care for people with disabilities, Congress finally passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The ADA in so many ways ushered in a new era — and progress built the pathway for further reform. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court enunciated in Olmstead v. L.C. a crucial tenet of the ADA: its community integration mandate. The court held that under the ADA, “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities” constitutes discrimination, plain and simple.

But even with these victories, we know that the tough and urgent work of actually vindicating these rights remains unfulfilled and unrealized. Because more than 20 years after Olmstead and 30 years after the ADA passed, we continue to see a real gap between what the law guarantees, on one hand, and what too many people with disabilities experience, on the other. And COVID-19 has only exacerbated these disparities.

We see this gap in the electoral process, where people with disabilities still fight to ensure safe and accessible in-person voting options amid COVID-19, so that voters with disabilities aren’t silenced in upcoming elections. 

We see this gap still in employment, as too many people with disabilities remain isolated in segregated sheltered workshops, with some paid just pennies per hour.

We see this gap in education, where some children with disabilities are struggling to receive access to remote learning and the tools and technology that promote equal opportunity.

We see this gap in policing, as too many people with disabilities, and especially Black people and other people of color, are wronged by policies and practices that criminalize and harm instead of investments in mental health responses, trauma-informed care, and resources that really help our communities. And while we don’t have the exact numbers, it’s likely that more than one-third of all policing shootings involve people with disabilities, and those targeted are by and large Black and Brown people.

It’s also worth noting that the need for access to mental health care has only increased by the threefold crisis that we face today. This is particularly true for Black and Brown communities that are disproportionately getting sick and dying, or disproportionately represented among essential workers, or disproportionately represented among the unemployed, and disproportionately impacted by police violence and mass incarceration.

I began my tenure at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in 2014 — it ended in 2017. I had spent several years at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and then at the ACLU. But when I entered the Justice Department, I knew that disability rights were core civil and human rights, and that every issue in every community we care about — from health care to employment to police violence to voting rights — impacts the disability community. In partnership with so many of you, my team there at the Justice Department and the Disability Rights Section at DOJ continued to do really important work, but really worked tirelessly to close the gaps so that people with disabilities can live, work, and learn with dignity and in their own communities and in our communities. And we prioritized the enforcement of the Olmstead decision. 

There are countless stories of people who were deeply impacted by that work and the commitment of the federal government to vigorously enforce the ADA and the Olmstead decision. We know that the Olmstead decision remains incredibly important to some of the crucial issues of the day and that Olmstead applies to all public entities — and public entities includes our justice system.

On our streets, that means continuing to advocate that police officers de-escalate tense encounters and reduce the need to use force, while promoting public safety. It means in our courts, we have to divert people with mental illness from incarceration and connect them with community-based treatment, wherever possible. It means in our jails and prisons, we have to work to connect people with services that they need to successfully re-integrate into their communities. And, in order for all of these players to meet their obligations and address the needs of their community members, we have to push states and localities to meet their ADA obligations to provide community-based mental health services. Because without the fulfillment of the Olmstead obligation, we can’t achieve truly a fair and smart justice reform. 

Three years ago, I took the helm of The Leadership Conference. Our coalition’s founders were  a cross-section of African American, Jewish, and labor leaders who believed that the fight for civil rights had to be waged not by one group alone, but in coalition. This year, The Leadership Conference is celebrating our 70th anniversary. And looking back, the passage of the ADA is one of the most critical moments in our coalition’s history — and in the long history of the civil rights movement. Many in The Leadership Conference family are going to remember that we worked tirelessly together toward its passage. And our commitment to the promise of the ADA remains very, very, strong.

So even in this moment, we have to remember that our voices have power. Our movement is strong. Our work across communities and across organizations remains as important as ever. And we will be heard.

A full recording of this briefing is available HERE.