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  • Writer's pictureJon Bari

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Jennifer Keelan, Age 8, Capitol Crawl, United States Capitol, March 12, 1990
Jennifer Keelan, Age 8, Capitol Crawl, United States Capitol, March 12, 1990

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels inevitability. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” -- Dr. Martin Luther King


In 1792, George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the United States Capitol “ought to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this Country.” Fast forward to 1990, and let’s revisit Washington’s request for the U.S. Capitol. Superior scale? Check. Grand? check. Symbol of American democracy? Check. Wheelchair accessible? NO!

As recently as 1990, the U.S. Capitol did not have wheelchair ramps or curb cuts. Accordingly, the U.S. Capitol was virtually inaccessible to people in wheelchairs and walkers. Our nation’s collective consciousness seemingly changed after March 12, 1990 when about 1,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. for the “Wheels of Justice” march from The White House up Pennsylvania Avenue to the U. S. Capitol Building.

The clarion call of “What Do We Want? Our ADA! When Do We Want It? NOW!!” was clearly heard, but it was not really understood. However, the message was amplified, literally and figuratively, at the Capitol when about 60 of the protesters spontaneously “cast aside their wheelchairs, crutches and walkers to crawl and drag themselves, step by step up” the 83 stone steps on the Capitol’s West side. Some may have thought that it was a stunt. Some may have viewed it as undignified for those in wheelchairs to climb up the Capitol steps, but the reality was that they needed to show society and our elected representatives the indignities and obstacles faced on a daily basis by people living with disabilities due to attitudinal barriers and moreover lack of access. The disability rights movement met its moment in D.C. at the Capitol Crawl!

Source: Capitol Crawl from Stephanie K. Thomas on Vimeo.

The Capitol Crawl represented the watershed moment for the civil rights of the disabled, and four months later, on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on The White House lawn.

Pictured above in the front row from left to right are Evan Kemp, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; George H. W. Bush, President of the United States; and Justin Dart, Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. In the back row from left to right are Rev. Harold Wilke; and Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability. (Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of American History).

As I was recently writing about the civil rights case of the 5th Grader (J.D.) with Celiac Disease or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity who took Colonial Williamsburg to court for violating his civil rights under the ADA, I was so inspired to learn about the uplifting story of the grit and resilience of some of those who have preceded J.D. and helped make the ADA a civil rights reality in 1990 for all Americans with disabilities, including now my 7 year old son with Celiac Disease.

The Trifecta of Events from 1988-1990 that Brought the Americans with Disabilities Act to Fruition

While there have been various historical examples of activism dating back to the 1800s, including with the Easter Seal Society (as discussed below), and there have been many people, organizations, events, and lawsuits that have influenced the disability rights movement over time, the crowing achievements came in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and in 2008 with the passage of the ADA Amendments Act.

“At the time of the late 1980s, too many people with disabilities were out of sight and out of the minds of the general public,” said Katy Neas, ‎Executive Vice President of Public Affairs at Easter Seals in an interview with Nevada Public Radio. “There was a lot of ignorance about the interests and abilities of people with disabilities. Discrimination and low expectations were part of the mainstream culture. Why would someone who uses a wheelchair want to go to the movies? Why would someone who is blind want to eat in a restaurant?,” according to Neas.

It is really important understand the context of the Capitol Crawl, and how it was an integral part of the trifecta of events that helped to finally bring the ADA to fruition:

1) The Gallaudet Student Protest (Week of March 6, 1988) – Since its founding in 1864, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. has led advances in the education of deaf and hard of hearing students, as well as deaf rights worldwide. To that end, in 1988, Gallaudet University, the only American university specifically for deaf students, played an instrumental role in the passage of the ADA when many of its students organized the “Deaf President Now” protest. This defining moment in the disability rights movement centered on the students’ demands, including that a deaf president for the university be selected by Gallaudet’s Board of Directors, and that deaf people must constitute at least a 51% majority on the Board of Directors. This protest helped champion integration and inclusion.

According to the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, the “Gallaudet protest marked the end of the public perception of people with disabilities as objects of pity and the beginning of a new public consciousness regarding people with disabilities.”

2) A Magna Carta (February 7-14, 1990) – In 2017, The Washington Post slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, was adopted. However, the spirit of the Post’s tagline has been in effect for many years, and it was in 1990, that more than 8,500 citizens with disabilities, as well as their advocates and supporting organizations, purchased a full page ad in The Washington Post, addressed to the members of the United States Congress.

“A Message to Congress from Representatives of 43 Million Americans with Disabilities” WE CONGRATULATE President Bush, Attorney General Thornburgh, Senators Harkin, Dole, Kennedy, McCain, Simon, Durenberger, Hatch and all who supported the overwhelming 76-8 vote by the US Senate to pass THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT (ADA). WE URGE THE PROMPT APPROVAL by the US House of Representatives of this landmark legislation to provide to people with disabilities the comprehensive civil rights protection which other minorities attained more than two decades ago. WE URGE THE REJECTION OF WEAKENING AMENDMENTS that would legalize intolerable discrimination which has made people with disabilities this nation’s most isolated, unemployed, impoverished and welfare dependent minority. REGRETTABLY, OPPONENTS of an effective ADA are claiming that it will impose unaffordable costs and lawsuits on business. These claims are groundless. They reflect the same obsolete attitudes, unfounded fears and doomsday predictions that have greeted all previous extensions of basic civil rights protections. ADA, AS PASSED BY THE SENATE and endorsed by President Bush, strikes a careful balance between the elimination of discrimination and the interests of business. It provides for a gradual transition to an opportunity society, requiring that only new facilities be fully accessible. It specifies that no “significant difficulty or expense” be imposed on businesses. Virtually all of its requirements have been tested for many years under existing federal and local statutes with no excessive costs or litigation. IT IS THE PROPOSED WEAKENING AMENDMENTS that are unaffordable. President Bush has estimated that excluding 2/3 of working age people with disabilities from the workforce costs America $300 billion per year. ADA WILL FREE MILLIONS OF AMERICANS from the bondage of welfare dependency, enabling them to become employees, taxpayers, customers and full participants in our rich culture. It will result in direct economic and life quality benefits to every person in this nation. It will be remembered with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an historic progress toward the fulfillment of the American dream. THE CHOICE IS CLEAR. ADA, YES! LEGALIZED DISCRIMINATION, NO! WE WILL REMEMBER THE PATRIOTS WHO VOTE FOR JUSTICE NOW.

Following is a partial list of the more than 8,500 citizens with disabilities, their advocates and organizations from every state who signed and paid their scarce dollars to sponsor this petition for justice.”

On February 14, 1990, just one week after the Magna Carta ad ran, Justin Dart, one of the key advocates for the ADA and organizer of the Magna Carta ad, met with President George H. W. Bush at The White House in the Oval Office. At the meeting, Mr. Dart presented President Bush with a copy of the full page ad on which in red marker was written, “Mr. President, Happy Valentine’s! We love you!

The Capitol Crawl “marked the transition from a system of paternalistic care by well-meaning but insensitive people to viewing disability as a civil rights issue.”

3) The Capitol Crawl (March 12, 1990) – By March 1990, the ADA had already passed the U.S. Senate and enjoyed bipartisan Congressional support. However, the ADA had stalled in the U.S. House Committee on Public Works and Transportation (now the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure), advocates within the disability community had become alarmed. This sparked the Wheels of Justice march that then came to be called the Capitol Crawl. Prior to the Capitol Crawl beginning, Justin Dart gave an impassioned speech at the foot of the Capitol invoking America’s revolutionary history and civil rights struggles.

“Like The Declaration of Independence, ADA will pave the way for the emancipation of hundreds of millions throughout the world from the bondage of segregation, poverty and dependency as discriminatory barriers are eliminated and citizens with disabilities in America and in all nations will become producers, tax payers, consumers and participants in the full richness of their cultures. Every human being on earth will benefit!” Justin Dart at the Capitol Crawl, March 12, 1990
The Capitol Crawl, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., March 12, 1990 (Photo Credit: Tom Olin and Easter Seals)

One of the most inspiring quotes from the Capitol Crawl was from Jennifer Keelan, a child who was one of the participants. While struggling to crawl up the 83 stone steps, Keelan showed her grit and resilience when she said, “I’ll take all night if I have to.” (Watch the video above from about 8:00-11:00, specifically at 8:45 mark)

The Capitol Crawl was the catalyst needed to secure the passage of the ADA. According to the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Capitol Crawl “marked the transition from a system of paternalistic care by well-meaning but insensitive people to viewing disability as a civil rights issue.” Here is a great clip from ABC World News with Peter Jennings on July 12, 1990 about the ADA that provides a contemporaneous account from that time period.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Became Law on July 26, 1990

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at The White House. In his remarks, President Bush referenced The Declaration of Independence in terms of its inspiration for then contemporaneous events including the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany on November 9, 1989 and the events leading up and including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Today, I am signing S. 933, the ‘Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.’ In this extraordinary year, we have seen our own Declaration of Independence inspire the march of freedom throughout Eastern Europe. It is altogether fitting that the American people have once again given clear expression to our most basic ideals of freedom and equality. The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full flowering of our democratic principles, and it gives me great pleasure to sign it into law today. In 1986, on behalf of President Reagan, I personally accepted a report from the National Council on Disability entitled ‘Toward Independence.’ In that report, the National Council recommended the enactment of comprehensive legislation to ban discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is such legislation. It promises to open up all aspects of American life to individuals with disabilities — employment opportunities, government services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications. This legislation is comprehensive because the barriers faced by individuals with disabilities are wide-ranging. Existing laws and regulations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have been effective with respect to the Federal Government, its contractors, and the recipients of Federal funds. However, they have left broad areas of American life untouched or inadequately addressed. Many of our young people, who have benefited from the equal education opportunity guaranteed under the Rehabilitation Act and the Education of the Handicapped Act, have found themselves on graduation day still shut out of the mainstream of American life. They have faced persistent discrimination in the workplace and barriers posed by inaccessible public transportation, public accommodations, and telecommunications… As The Declaration of Independence has been a beacon for people all over the world seeking freedom, it is my hope that the Americans with Disabilities Act will likewise come to be a model for the choices and opportunities of future generations around the world.”

The ADA is an equal opportunity law for those with disabilities. According to the United States Department of Justice,

“The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life… the ADA is an ‘equal opportunity’ law for people with disabilities.”

The ADA in Action – Attitudinal and Physical Barriers Removed

In the spirit of a picture is worth a thousand words, the following post from Facebook speaks volumes about how the ADA has evolved over time, and how our society has embraced the spirit of inclusion for those with disabilities. While much work still remains to be done, this picture below is a very powerful example of how we can each help to make the world a better place.

This is particularly meaningful for me as the President of The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia which provides guided tours of America’s Birthplace. On October 4, 2019, Rachel Sciotino posted the following on Facebook,

“Thank you, Jennifer Llewellyn Ruth, for capturing the best moment of our Philadelphia field trip. This is a picture of Philly’s finest not only removing the boundary ropes or our blind student, but guiding him to feel all of the parts of the Liberty Bell and explaining everything to him personally. Well done, Sir. We are grateful and proud.”

Independence National Historical Park re-posted this on October 21, 2019 and stated,

“The visitor experience is, and always will be, number one for us! We strive to make life-long impressions for each and every visitor. National Park Service.”

Timeline of the Major Milestones Leading to the Americans with Disabilities Act

Pictured above is Justin Dart, Jr. marching in support of efforts to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act with a banner citing Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Litigation in the 1950s-1970s, legislation and tireless advocacy over many years progressively lead to the enactment, implementation and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the National Park Service, “The US Congress had passed many laws that support disability rights either directly or by recognizing and enforcing civil rights. Civil rights laws such as Brown v. Board of Education and its decision that school segregation is unconstitutional laid the groundwork for recognizing the rights of people with disabilities.”

  • 1954Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal” and ordered an end to school segregation. While this case referred to racial segregation, it began to influence thinking about people with disabilities. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, there were a number of cases in the courts which held that disabled people people cannot be confined to institutions if less restrictive measures could be taken to keep them safe in the community. The concept of “Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)” evolved and became a prevailing ruling in court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From there, the concepts of disability rights continued to evolve.

  • 1964The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

  • 1965The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed to protect minorities’ right to vote in elections and overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels which had prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • 1968 – The Civil Rights Act of 1968 amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prevent discrimination involving the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, or national origin.

  • 1973 – The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.

  • 1975The Education of Handicapped Children Act was passed to ensure equal access to education for children with disabilities. This guaranteed that children with disabilities had the right to a public school education. This landmark law is currently enacted as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended in 1997.

  • 1980s – Along with the development of new assistive technologies and services for disabled individuals, societal attitudes evolved whereby people with disabilities should be included in society. According to the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, “The concept of inclusion was based on the premise that all individuals with disabilities had a right to participate and not just be present in the community, in activities with their neighborhood peers, siblings, and friends. Least restrictive was not enough; more was required.”

  • 1986 – The National Council on the Handicapped (now referred to as the National Council on Disability, or NCD) issued its report Toward Independence with legislative recommendations including the enactment by Congress of a “comprehensive” equal opportunity law, “perhaps under such a title as ‘The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1986.’”

  • 1988 – The Fair Housing Act was amended to include prohibiting discrimination towards those with disabilities and families with children in relation to housing.

  • 1988 – The National Council on the Handicapped (now the National Council on Disability, or NCD) issued its report On the Threshold of Independence. The Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities was created by Congressman Major Owens, and co-chaired by Justin Dart Jr. and Elizabeth Boggs. The first version of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced by Senator Lowell Weicker and Congressman Tony Coelho in the 100th Congress.

  • 1990 – President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) on July 26, 1990 to prevent discrimination against those living with disabilities.

“Following the passage of the ADA in 1990 and as directed by Congress, the United States Attorney General issued regulations implementing Title II that are based on the regulations issued under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Title II regulations require public entities to ‘administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.’ The preamble discussion of the “integration regulation” explains that ‘the most integrated setting’ is one that “enables individuals with disabilities to interact with nondisabled persons to the fullest extent possible…” Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities
  • 1999 – The Supreme Court ruled in Sutton v United Airlines, Murphy v United Parcel Service, and Albertson’s Inc. v Kirkingburg (the “Sutton trilogy”), narrowing the definition of disability by holding that people who use “mitigating measures,” such as medication, may not be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v L.C., recognizing that the “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination” and holding that services must be provided in integrated, community-based settings when possible. In other words, the Supreme Court declared that “to needlessly confine a person in an institution is segregation, that segregation is discrimination, and the ADA forbids such discrimination.”

  • 2008 – The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”) was signed into law by President George W. Bush to counteract the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of disability and provide broad protection from discrimination.

  • 2009 – According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “In 2009, on the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead, President Obama launched “The Year of Community Living” and directed federal agencies to vigorously enforce the civil rights of Americans with disabilities. Since then, the Department of Justice has made enforcement of Olmstead a top priority. As we commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Olmstead decision, the Department of Justice reaffirms its commitment to vindicate the right of individuals with disabilities to live integrated lives under the ADA and Olmstead. To assist individuals in understanding their rights under title II of the ADA and its integration mandate, and to assist state and local governments in complying with the ADA, the Department of Justice has created this technical assistance guide.”

Author’s Note

When my family moved in 2014 into our “new” home that was built in 1807, we started researching the history of some of the people who had previously lived there. We discovered that it was the ancestral home of Frank B. Allen (1887-1945) and his wife, Eleanor Allen (1888-1974), as well as their children Homer E. Allen (1915-1984) and Mary Blythe Allen McBride (1924-?). By way of background, Frank Allen was the son of Edgar “Daddy” Allen, the founder of the Easter Seals Society, which for over 100 years has been an indispensable resource for individuals with disabilities, veterans, seniors and their families.

Frank’s son, Homer, was named in honor of Edgar’s late son (and Frank’s late brother), Homer, who had been killed in a streetcar (trolley) accident in Ohio at the age of 18 on Memorial Day in 1907, and Homer served as the inspiration behind Easter Seals.

“The lack of adequate medical services available to save his son prompted Allen to sell his business and begin a fund-raising campaign to build a hospital in his hometown of Elyria, Ohio. Through this new hospital, Allen was surprised to learn that children with disabilities were often hidden from public view. Inspired to make a difference, in 1919 Allen founded the National Society for Crippled Children, the first organization of its kind.” – Easter Seals Society

Frank B. Allen was a coal magnate who had founded Allen-Sherman-Hoff. The Allen family continued their family’s philanthropic legacy by donating a considerable amount of their wealth to the Easter Seals Society. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Homer Allen (1915-1984) was a former executive of the National Easter Seal Society. Allen was also the president and a director in the 1960s of the Philadelphia Easter Seal Society.

When I learned of the Allen’s family involvement with Easter Seals in 2014, I am in awe of their thought leadership and accomplishments. When I think about it in context today, I believe that Edgar’s shock at how “children with disabilities were often hidden from public view” was his driving force. As a grieving father, Allen saw to it that this societal view must change. That people with disabilities, especially children, have civil rights, that segregation is discrimination, and that people with disabilities must be included in society. Allen though never lost sight of the fact that underlying these disabilities were people and their families, and that these people had feelings and emotions. Being hidden from public view was not the way to treat anyone. Allen saw that segregation was discrimination, and his early advocacy, born from tragedy, for inclusion helped set the stage for the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


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