By Ben Mattlin
On July 25, 2021, a day before the thirty-first anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the New York Times Magazine published a story about the proliferation of ADA litigation. “The Price of Access” was the headline of the print edition; the online version, which had appeared a few days earlier, was titled “The Man Who Filed More Than 180 Disability Lawsuits.”
The titles say it all: the piece was sarcastic, hard-hitting, and largely disparaging of disability rights campaigns. As a lifelong wheelchair user, I was offended.
Understanding the ADA
The ADA is often referred to as a landmark civil rights bill. It outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, government programs and buildings, public accommodations such as stores and restaurants, and telecommunications. In its recognition of widespread past discrimination, it elevated the disability population—currently estimated to represent roughly a fourth of the US population—to a legally protected minority status.
As sweeping as the law is, however, it has one primary flaw: The government doesn’t go around actively enforcing it. You can’t get a ticket for access violations. Instead, the regulations must be implemented through lawsuits filed by those who feel they’ve been unfairly discriminated against. Disabled people themselves are deputized to become a sort of unpaid labor force of ADA cops.
The Times article acknowledged this. “In response to right-wing resistance to expanded governmental reach, those who fought for the ADA’s passage decided against setting up a federal office to monitor or enforce it, the way the Drug Enforcement Administration enforces narcotics laws and Immigration and Customs Enforcement pursues immigration violations. Instead, lawmakers concluded that ADA enforcement should happen through the courts—essentially transferring the role of enforcement from the government to individual disabled people and the judges who heard their cases.”
So, the fate of accessibility fell to the slow-moving courts. No one wants to be sued for an ADA violation, of course, but that doesn’t stop many companies and cities from taking their chances.
Granted, the specific access codes can be complicated. Ramps can only be so steep. Doorways must have a certain width. Menus and signs must be in Braille. No doubt, some violations are accidental or inadvertent. And no doubt, there are lawyers who recruit disabled people to pursue litigation, as the Times article implied. “In 2012, plaintiffs filed 2,495 Title III cases in federal court,” said the article, referring to charges against stores and other public accommodations. “By 2017, that had more than tripled to 7,663 cases.”
That may sound alarming, yet this spate of litigiousness doesn’t mean the ADA is a bad thing. Moreover, litigation is only part of the story. Judging the ADA by the court cases it’s engendered completely misses the point of one of the most important events in recent history.
Repercussions of Equal Rights
I’ve been researching a book about what the disability community and the disability movement have been up to since the ADA became law. One key theme I kept finding was how the civil rights protections laid out in the ADA helped change perceptions as well as legal statutes. Not only does the average American now have an inkling about disability rights that never existed before, but disabled people themselves gained an unprecedented sense of entitlement, of belonging. The ADA enabled them to imagine a fairer, more just world. It made it seem actually possible, almost within reach.
Today, the changes brought by the ADA can be seen everywhere—wheelchair ramps, of course, but also Braille signs in elevators and elsewhere, public transit lifts, emotional-support animals, sign language interpreters at many political rallies and during the National Anthem at big sporting events, electronic listening devices in movie theaters, “reasonable accommodations” by employers such as flextime and telecommuting, and myriad other modifications.
Moreover, you see disabled people out and about, interacting with society in ordinary ways, which wasn’t always true before.
But perhaps chief among the ADA’s successes is the simple fact that so many people now accept the idea of equality for disabled people. This very notion “approaches disability in a new, unfamiliar way,” wrote Doris Zames Fleischer and Frieda Zames in the Disability Studies Quarterly. The old approach, they explained, was the “impairment model,” which essentially presumed you couldn’t expect equality if you couldn’t do certain things to function effectively in the world. After the ADA, though, disability was redefined in terms of a struggle for fairness and social parity.
The ADA as a Spark
This proved an essential spark. Almost immediately after its passage, pro-disability celebrations began happening in Boston and New York. At “disability independence” marches, people quickly started talking about disability pride. It may not have been a brand-new concept, but it soon spread and gained traction. In time, every anniversary of the ADA’s passage became known as Disability Pride Day. Recently, the entire month of July was dubbed Disability Pride Month.
At the same time, disability studies curricula began cropping up. These gave a generation of students a unique perspective on the disability experience and the trajectory of the disability movement. As a result, perhaps, more young people are identifying as disabled (though some of that is because of improved diagnosing of learning disabilities and other neurodivergencies).
Soon, previously unrecognized pockets of the disability community began to speak out and gain attention. People of color, with all types of disabilities and chronic health conditions, of all gender identities, stressed that the disability community is not all about White men in wheelchairs, as the media had been portraying it. Disability, after all, knows no racial, ethnic, geographic, socioeconomic, or gender bounds.
This, in turn, led to greater awareness of intersectionality—the interplay of what’s come to be known as ableism with racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, and all other forms of oppression.
The Crusade Continues
Though it had once seemed the ultimate goal, the ADA proved to be a starting point for the ever-broadening disability community. It provided a legal framework, a schematic for the future, but the disability community has taken the cause—the crusade—much farther.
Lawsuits are only one part of that. There would be fewer lawsuits, of course, if there were fewer violations. But as long as people and institutions continue to thwart the notion of fair and equal access, disabled people will keep fighting by whatever means necessary.
Beyond fighting for our rights, though, the disability community asserts itself by simply coming out of the shadows—coming to embrace our identity and connectedness to one another. That’s a key part of what disability pride signifies. We’ve moved beyond self-acceptance to redefine what it means to be disabled.
The ADA may have been society’s way of recognizing us as a group deserving of equal rights. But the legacy of the ADA is what we make of it and do with it every day.
About the Author
Ben Mattlin is the author of Miracle Boy Grows Up and In Sickness and In Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance, and a frequent contributor to Financial Advisor magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Vox, and on NPR. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter at @benmattlin and visit his website.