By Alyssa Berg
While the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees equal rights before the law for all U.S. citizens, the late 1980s saw one subset of America’s population yet without the full protection of this clause. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided the legislative framework to prevent discrimination based on individual traits such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, Americans with physical and mental disabilities remained unprotected.
In answer to the growing strength of disability rights organizations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced on the House floor on May 5th, 1989, by Congressman Anthony Coelho. The bill boasted early bipartisan co-sponsorship, and passed easily in the House with overwhelming bipartisan support from 248 Democrats and 155 Republicans. From there, the ADA was introduced in the Senate by its strongest proponent, Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa. Sen. Harkin’s older brother was deaf, giving the Senator first-hand experiences with the struggles of Americans living with disabilities. Of the bill, Sen. Harkin stated: “I strongly believe that it is important to level the playing field and give eligible individuals equal access to community-based services and supports. This vital legislation will open the door to full participation by people with disabilities in our neighborhoods, workplaces, our economy, and our American Dream.”
Sen. Harkin found support for his bill on both sides of the aisle, though the Senate’s timeliness in bringing the bill to a vote frustrated many disability rights activists. In protest, over 60 disabled activists abandoned their wheelchairs, crutches, and other mobility assistance devices at the foot of the U.S. Capitol and began to make their way up the steps of the building in an act known as the “Capitol Crawl.” This action, and particularly the participation of the protest’s youngest activist, Jennifer Keelan, a second grader with Cerebral Palsy who climbed the Capitol steps unassisted on her hands and knees, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest influences on the ADA’s eventual success.
On September 7th, 1989, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in the U.S. Senate with 76 supporting votes: 44 Democrats and 32 Republicans. The bill’s provisions ensured that disabled Americans would have access to public buildings and facilities, that they would be considered fairly for employment regardless of their disability, and that their unique needs would be accommodated in the workplace. The ADA also introduced measures to aid those with disabilities in establishing greater independence and control in their everyday lives.
In celebration of the bill’s passage, Sen. Harkin delivered the first-ever Senate floor speech given in American Sign Language. Republican President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law on July 26, 1990, further exemplifying the truly bipartisan effort to protect the rights and opportunities of Americans living with disabilities. At the signing of the bill, President Bush expressed his full support of the measure, stating, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”