DemDaily: In Defense of The Disabled

July 27, 2021

The civil rights movement has had many faces throughout history, but among the lesser-known soldiers are Americans with disabilities.

It was not until 1990, that the first comprehensive civil rights act for people with disabilities, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), was passed into law.

Thirty-one years later, there are more than 61 million Americans who live with disabilities, representing one-in-four people in this country. Of those, approximately 38.3 million are eligible to vote.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

"Father" of ADA, legendary human rights activist Justin Dart (Capitol Lawn protest, 1990)

Over "three decades ago, protesters with disabilities converged on the nation's capital to fight for one of the most important civil rights laws in our history - the Americans with Disabilities Act ... these brave protesters ascended the 83 steps of the United States Capitol - some even crawling to get to the top - so they could send a message to their representatives: no American should ever face discrimination based on their disability status." -- former Congressman Tony Coelho (D-CA), ADA Sponsor and Chair, DNC Disability Council

The goal was to provide disabled Americans the same protections afforded under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics illegal.

Disabled rights activists Patrisha Wright and Justin Dart Jr. led the lobbying efforts to pass the ADA, which was introduced by Congressman Tony Coelho in the House, Senator Tom Harkin in the Senate, and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.

The ADA, as revised in 2008, defines a person with a disability as "a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability."


Rolling Back Rights for the Disabled
Disregard for the disabled under the Trump administration was well documented. In a November 2015 campaign speech, President Trump infamously mocked a disabled reporter who has arthrogryposis, a condition that limits joint function.

In December 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded ten disability rights guidances that the Justice Department found "unnecessary," included protections against workplace discrimination and standards for service animals and building accessibility.

Trump & Ed Secretary Devos proposed cutting Special Olympics (Pacific Press)

The same year, Education Secretary Betsy Devos rescinded 70+ guidelines that protected disabled students, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson scaled back fair housing laws that resulted in the delay or dismissal of discrimination cases by disabled groups.

In 2019, Trump tried to defund the Special Olympics but reversed his decision after severe pushback from supporters.

In his final year, Trump proposed eliminating funding under the Autism CARES Act, as well as sweeping changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance program that would redefine the workweek and lead to fewer disability benefit awards.

In October 2019, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Domino's Pizza and let stand a US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which held that the Americans With Disabilities Act protects access not to just brick-and-mortar public accommodations, but also to the websites and apps of businesses.

Biden's EO's include increased disability access to the polls. In 2020, 60-80% of polling places were still handicapped inaccessible, despite ADA requirements (J.Nielsen/Houston Chronicle)

Restoring Rights Under Biden
On yesterday's anniversary, President Joseph Biden, who as a US Senator co-sponsored the 1990 ADA legislation, said, "For our nation, the ADA is more than a law as well, it's a testament to our character as a people, our character as Americans."

On day one of his administration, Biden signed Executive Order (EO) Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, which expands the federal government's approach to advancing equity for all, including persons with disabilities.

To commemorate the 31st anniversary of the ADA Monday, the White House released a series of measures already taken under his administration that both restore rights eliminated under the Trump and considerably expand benefits and protections for the disabled.

Biden, with Coelho over his right shoulder signs new ADA protections (PehalNews)

Biden also announced a new effort where Americans experiencing serious "long COVID-19" symptoms could qualify for disability under the ADA civil rights law. "We're bringing agencies together to make sure Americans with long Covid who have a disability have access to the rights and resources that are due under the disability law," Biden said, adding that this includes accommodations in the workplace, school and health care.

According to new joint guidance from the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, long Covid will be considered a disability "if the person's condition or any of its symptoms is a 'physical or mental' impairment that 'substantially limits' one or more major life activities." The agencies stressed, however, that "individualized assessment" would be necessary to make that determination.

The departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Education and Labor also released Guidelines on Long Covid as a Disability to help affected individuals navigate federal benefits.

"Today, we celebrate the progress that has been forged in the years since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we renew our pledge to continue working for the civil rights of people with disabilities-because every American deserves to live out their boundless promise." - DNC Chair Jaime Harrison and DNC Disability Council Chair Tony Coelho 7/26/21

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Kimberly Scott

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Resources:, White House, Politico, The Hill, NBC, DNC

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