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SYMBOLISM AS FAKE PROGRESS, AND THE UNDERWHELMING LEGACY OF THE ADA

The ADA encourages disabled people to feel safe in the workforce and beyond, but in reality it only serves to give them the opportunity to be exploited just like everyone else.

By Jude Casimir

“Citizens with disabilities in America and in all nations will become producers, taxpayers, consumers, and participants in the full richness of their cultures.” — Justin Dart Jr., activist and disability rights advocate.

On July 26, 1990, Congress signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (commonly referred to as the ADA) into law. The result of a major, long-term push from disability rights activists culminating in the Capitol Crawl of March 1990—in which 60 of the hundreds of activists gathered at the U.S. Capitol Building for the Wheels of Justice Rally to protest the stall of the act cast aside their assistive devices and crawled up the 78 steps—the bill was seen as a landmark achievement, and an integral triumph for the legacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

While one certainly cannot downplay what the ADA meant at the time, nor the tireless struggle of the activists who ushered in its passage, veneration of the act has long overshadowed its many flaws, a number of which have actually facilitated the abuse of disabled people the ADA was meant to combat. 

The ADA is meant to prevent discrimination and provide access to disabled people in every facet of life, whether it be civilly or economically. But 30 years since its passing, employers can still refuse to hire disabled people. They can even stop disabled people from applying in the first place by including items such as being able to lift a certain amount of weight or an arbitrary measure of efficiency or mandated physical presence in their job descriptions. In fact, rates for employment of disabled people declined after the ADA went into effect. Students can still be denied accommodations they need to succeed in school, their promised note takers never showing up or having to have courses in inaccessible buildings. Sidewalks are still hard to wheel on and doorframes are still not wide enough for wheelchair users to go through. City governments are still not required to make buildings designated as “historically significant” accessible if it means that the structural changes made, like elevators or ramps, would threaten that.

The ADA is, at least ostensibly, supposed to be preventative, but in practice, it’s reactive in how it handles recourse. It puts the onus on disabled people to be proactive, allowing us limited action such as filing complaints about these things. We can go as far as threatening or pursuing litigation against employers for things such as wrongful termination. But, while there have been some cases won on behalf of specific disabled people, litigation is widely unfeasible for so many, since some of the highest poverty rates in the country can be found among disabled people—especially Black disabled people.

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These basic problems are enough to make the ADA look like a purposeful half-measure. While many people will attribute the lack of large-scale ADA compliance to limited funding or lingering stigma, this cannot excuse the clear and intentional bias that haunts nearly every conversation about accessibility. As people with disabilities and their allies were fighting for their basic rights and needs to be met, religious organizations were arguing against their public accommodations designation, claiming that this would force them to make very costly changes to their buildings. Predictably, businesses also met the ADA with severe pushback, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and lobbying group National Federation of Independent Business both arguing that the costs would be disastrous for small business.

The essential humanity of disabled people painted time and time again as a logistical or legal inconvenience—lives measured in how many permits or pages of paperwork they’re ultimately worth.

I’m certainly not the first person to point these things out, but it often feels like mainstream outrage demands recompense for disabled people along the same channels that exemplify and enable the ultimate failure of the ADA. It’s the sort of discussion that always ends with suggestions to write your congressperson or sign a petition, or trust that things can be good, that it’s only the specific malfunctions of a bill that are the issue. And while these things are certainly part of the issue, the main problem is that laws are air. Pretentious, long-winded, and bureaucratic, sure, but they’re air all the same. They are only as good as their enforcement is, and that enforcement is entirely predicated on the values of a given system—what’s important, and who’s worth sacrificing to uphold that.

Because the U.S. has such a desperate hold on capitalism and free market interests, because the only thing this country really values is profit, because the idea of money-making is so deeply ingrained into our culture and our identities, there was never any real chance that disabled people would come out on top in this fight. This country and its leaders care way more about profit than they could ever even pretend to care about people, and since disabled people are often thought of as subhuman, that neglect falls on us even harder.

The ADA encourages disabled people to feel safe in the workforce and beyond, in everyday life, but in reality it only serves to give them the opportunity to be exploited just like everyone else.

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There’s something incredibly unsettling and perverse in the idea that to be a full participant in society one must be both an outstanding producer and a consumer. In lieu of fundamental personhood, this model privileges the ability to create economic value, a system which is on full, gaudy display in the USA. This is a process that’s been in the works since the inception of this country. Civil rights, no matter who is fighting for them, no matter who they are eventually “granted” to, are directly antithetical to this country’s mission of violent identity reduction and hyper-commodification. In a society that inherently does not value human life, civil rights laws are especially evaporative.

This is starkly apparent with the ADA and its use of vague language (i.e. “reasonable accommodation,” “undue strain,” even what qualifies as disability) to allow room for loose and inconsistent interpretation, the ease in which noncompliance can just slip by. After all, you don’t have to accommodate people, nor can you get threatened with a lawsuit if people can’t even get in/to the place to notice the inaccessibility. 

In actuality, the ADA serves two purposes that are inherently contradictory, and neither of them are the stated goals. The first one is to give the veneer of progress made for disabled people. It looked good to finally bestow upon the pitiful cripples our rights. It looked good to feed us scraps because no one cared enough to look closer and see that it wasn’t actually a full meal. The majority of people in this country—those who know about disabled people and disability enough, anyway—think that the ADA has fixed public life for people with disabilities. At a cost, but still. And abled people take advantage of it precisely because of this nonsensical belief. The second, more insidious one was to appease businesses and employers, private entities and government facilities, (not-so) secretly granting them largely the same control over their spaces they had prior to the bill’s enactment.

Footage of the Capitol Crawl is incredibly difficult to watch. The discomfort of the action was the point. As one of the best examples of direct action in the fight for disabled rights, it was supposed to bring explicit policymaker and congressional attention to the struggle of inaccessibility, and it’s seen by a lot of disability activists now as integral to the passing of the bill. However, there is a deeper discomfort, in hindsight, that lingers once you realize that this visual, stripped of the narrative of resilience, stripped of the inspirational aura surrounding it, was emblematic of the dehumanization that the ADA was penned to prevent but instead perpetuates in its overall ineffectiveness.

In many ways that makes the arduous, painful visual of the Capitol Crawl even more agonizing: the people are dragging themselves up and across the steps, and the struggle is worn on their faces.  “I’ll take all night if I have to!” proclaims second-grader Jennifer Keelan, who has cerebral palsy, as she pulls herself up. “I’ll take all night.”

In hindsight, the ADA’s failures are enough to make you ask if she made it up at all.

Jude Casimir sometimes writes things, and her passions include movies, books, history, and Communism. She is a revolutionary optimist, even when she’s feeling a little pessimistic, and is constantly engaging in work that addresses topics such as race, disability, class, sexuality and their frequent intersections. She graduated from Worcester State University and lives in Massachusetts.

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