In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legislation that attempted to outline and enforce policies to break down barriers for people with disabilities in modern American society.
Before the passage of the ADA, persons with physical and/or mental disabilities were largely excluded from participating in society. They were discriminated against with respect to employment, access to public spaces, resources, and many more options that most people without disabilities take for granted.
The ADA defined a person with a disability as someone who “has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Its definition of a disability is broad, allowing the legislation to apply to diverse situations in which discrimination is present.
During the 25 years since its enactment, the ADA has changed how society responds to disability. By requiring accommodations, not simply equal treatment, the ADA demands a more expansive understanding of equality that is instructive. There are now more accessible buildings and public spaces and media—such as books, television shows, and computer software—that have been updated, improved upon, and constructed in order to reach a much wider audience. In many ways, the ADA has changed the physical, professional, and social landscape of the United States.
However, unconscious discrimination has a long way to go in society. When people think of prejudice, sexism and racism are often among the first kinds to come to mind, but the bias against people with disabilities is often overlooked and excluded from the national discourse. In a study entitled “Disability: A Research Study on Unconscious Bias” by Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion in 2014, researchers concluded that “over one in three people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability, [which is] higher than levels of bias on the basis of gender or race.” And as our interview with UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program Director Paul Hippolutus also reveals (see p. 26), even at institutions known for a history of inclusion such as UC Berkeley, bias against people with disabilities remains a serious problem. From social exclusion, to a lack of academic support, to high unemployment rates, people with disabilities face additional challenges created by society.
Correcting our unconscious bias toward people with disabilities and changing society’s disconnect with how disability is seen will take time and effort, but first we must understand that “disability is normal,” as Hippolitus said in his interview. We must not only say this aloud, but truly believe it—and structure our policies and institutions— in order to overcome unconscious bias and practice inclusion and belonging.
Tips on Being More Fully Inclusive
- Use alt(ternate) text on webpages and emails with images so that it can be read by software for people with visual impairments.
- Provide ASL and closed captioning services at events, for people with hearing impairments.
- Offer priority seating for wheelchair access or people with disabilities.
- Recognize that not all disabilities will be visible and prepare for them in advance.
- Make sure accessible bathrooms are made available to those who may need it.
- Offer scent-free sections of public spaces where perfumes, and other scented products are not present. Offer benches or armless chairs to allow different body shapes and sizes to be more comfortable.
- Encourage others to be mindful and considerate of others around them, paying particular attention to those who dominate or control spaces that belong to everyone.
Interested in learning more about the ADA and it's impact? Here are some resources.
US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division:
Disability Rights Course:
ADA Anniversary Toolkit:
US Department of Labor:
US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
Campaign for Disability Employment: