Today in 1989: The U.S. Senate passes the Americans with Disabilities Act

September 7, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryIn the late 1980s, long after the historic Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s ended, one of the most expansive civil rights laws in existence emerged.

However, this isn’t a law that guarantees protection from discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Instead, this law – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

The ADA was passed by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 76 to 8 on September 7, 1989.

The ADA wasn’t actually signed into law until July 26, 1990 – over 10 months later.


Because of the law’s expansive protections, it faced stiff opposition, primarily from business groups.

For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claimed that the cost of the law would be monstrous, and would have “a disastrous impact on many small businesses struggling to survive.”

This opposition meant heavy scrutiny for the law: it underwent consideration by a whopping four committees in the U.S. House of Representatives, with each having at least one subcommittee hearing on the law.

Because of the law’s broad, grassroots support, though, it endured.

It passed the House on May 22, 1990, by a unanimous voice vote, and after reconciling the two versions of the bill, it was signed into law.

What makes the ADA so contentiously expansive?

There are five titles of the ADA.

The first deals with employment discrimination, and bars an employer with 15 or more employees from discriminating against “a qualified individual with a disability” during application procedures, hiring, retention, promotion, discharge, workers compensation, job training, and pretty much any other aspect of employment.

This title also contains the provision requiring employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to employees with known physical or mental disabilities.

Title II prohibits discrimination by public entities and public transportation, including public housing organizations.

Title IV requires telecommunication companies to provide functionally equivalent services for the deaf and hard of hearing (e.g. Teletypewriter (TTY) machines and other Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD)).

Title V is a sundry provision that makes various, somewhat unrelated updates to U.S. code.

I didn’t forget about Title III.  Because it’s one of the most extensive and important sections, I saved it for last.

The section prohibits discrimination by “places of public accommodation” against the disabled.

Although the first idea that enters your mind when you hear “public accommodation” is a hotel or motel, there is actually a statutory list that includes much more than just those.

This list includes a wide variety of places, including movie theaters, zoos, parks, private schools, golf courses, bakeries, Laundromats, and many, many more.

Some places that you might not suspect have also been ruled to be places of “public accommodation.”

As I discussed in two earlier posts, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) sued Netflix because of its lack of closed captioned content.

The complaint argued that the Internet was a place of public accommodation under the ADA since it fit one or more of the statutory definitions (“place of exhibition and entertainment,” “place of recreation,” “sales or rental establishment,” and “service establishments”).

Every federal circuit has ruled, however, that a place of public accommodation must be a physical location…except for the First Circuit, which, coincidentally, is the circuit in which the suit against Netflix was filed.

Whether this suit is successful is beside the point, which is that the ADA offers the most expansive protections of any civil rights legislation.

After all, could you envisage another civil rights law used in a lawsuit to require private, online companies to provide certain services?

And for that reason, it will remain contentious in the future.

But, arguably, this expansiveness is needed to protect the rights of disabled individuals, so I suppose, contentiousness just comes with the territory.