Twenty-Seven Years Later and Disability Rights are Still Under Attack

07/24/2017 04:10 pm ET

The Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA) is a monumental achievement. But the law is once again “under serious attack,” with disability rights groups encouraging citizens to write to their members of Congress to protect it.

Just what are these groups so concerned about? For one, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017.

This bill would relax requirements for businesses to provide reasonable accommodations. That means a person with a disability would have to write a letter to a business with accessibility barriers allowing them 60 days to respond and then another 120 days to address the barrier.

“No other civil rights group is forced to wait 180 days to enforce their civil rights” says the American Association of People with Disabilities. And the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, not mincing any words, succinctly proclaimed that it would “take the heart out of the ADA.”

But the proposed reform is just one piece in a slew of political threats to disability rights this year. Early on, Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general caused a stir because of comments he made in the Senate years earlier. While talking about the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed children with disabilities the right to free and appropriate public mainstream education, Sessions accused the policy of creating “lawsuit after lawsuit” and “special treatment for certain children… accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”

Now, the Senate’s healthcare bill promises severe cuts to Medicaid. This would force many people with disabilities out of their homes, where they can receive Medicaid-funded attendant care, and into institutional care. Throughout the 1990s, lobbying and disruptive protests by disability rights groups, especially ADAPT, helped change the existing bias in Medicaid funding favoring nursing homes over in-home care. Last month, ADAPT held another protest in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office, but police forcibly removed protesters dragging them out of their wheelchairs and dropping one protester in the process.

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns twenty-seven years old this July. So why do threats to well-established policies like this persist? The answer lies in the nature of American politics and the history of disability rights policy.

The ADA is often referred to as the emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities and the last great piece of civil rights legislation since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But let’s not forget that it was the showpiece of the “third wave of civil rights” which promised to restore rights after a period of retrenchment in the early 1980s.

After Congress passed Section 504, the key rights provision in the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, activists and policymakers faced an uphill battle. There was widespread pushback on enforcement, blatant defiance of reasonable accommodation requirements, and unfavorable Supreme Court decisions that undermined equal access and antidiscrimination.

And the Americans with Disabilities Act faced similar challenges after it was signed in 1990, even though it was being touted as a bipartisan effort with tremendous support. Opposition quickly built around broad definitions of disability, its supposed reregulation of the labor market, and a fear of increasing lawsuits. Following a series of detrimental Supreme Court decisions that further undermined the ADA, Congress finally enacted the “ADA Restoration Act” in 2008.

The entire history of disability rights can be characterized as lunging forward on policy, followed by attempts to undermine the law, leading to new policy responses to restore the law. The U.S. was once seen as a policy innovator in disability rights, among the first to secure civil rights for the disabled. But if current developments are any indication, we are now once again facing a period of potential retrenchment.

These cycles are not merely an interesting feature of U.S. policymaking. They have real implications on everyday Americans like declining employment rates and stagnant wages that contribute to high levels of inequality and poverty among Americans with disabilities.

As Ed Roberts, the father of the independent living movement once said at a protest years ago, “politics is pressure.” Disability advocacy groups once central in sustaining mobilization that defined the disability rights movement in the 80s and 90s are critical in maintaining the fight against these threats, now more than ever.

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