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The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was the most significant civil rights legislation enacted since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provided comprehensive protection against discrimination for individuals with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, and public services. It built on § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that provided these protections only to programs receiving federal financial assistance. It afforded broad access to those individuals who had benefitted from the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This complex and far-reaching legislation was made possible by a confluence of timing and the right people at the right place at the right time in a political and social climate much different than today. It is extremely unlikely that such legislation would pass in the current political climate. Fortunately, the benefits of the ADA have become apparent as a result of almost three decades of impact. The combination of its success (although more is needed particularly in the area of health care access), the high percentage of the population affected by disability directly or indirectly, and the challenges of any major legislative change on any issue at present makes it unlikely to be repealed in any major way. There is, however, substantial concern over its diminished impact due to administrative agency actions in its reduced enforcement, prioritization, and other administrative attention.

This article recounts the story behind the passage of the ADA, referencing the detailed and insightful stories recounted in the 2015 book Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights, by Lennard Davis as the foundation. Added to those insights are the perspectives of the author of this Article who has been involved in disability rights advocacy and education since 1979.