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How 25 Years of the “Americans with Disabilities Act” Has Benefited All of Us

Three cheers for the ADA at 25 years of age!

The signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in July 1990 dramatically changed the social and political landscape of the United States for the better. It greatly advanced civil rights for people with disabilities (PWDs).

The ADA defines disability in broad terms, encompassing physical as well as cognitive and mental disabilities.

The ADA’s five titles cover:

  1. Employment and employment accommodations (Title 1);

  2. Availability of public services at the local, state, and national levels (Title 2);

  3. Public accommodations for new construction and modifications for existing structures to enhance accessibility (Title 3);

  4. Telecommunications accessibility (Title 4);

  5. Miscellaneous concerns, chiefly protecting PWDs from coercion, reprisals, and threats if they seek legal help to enforce ADA standards (Title 5).

What do these Titles mean for daily living?

If you have a disability, the ADA ensures that you experience fair employment practices (equal opportunity, access to jobs), adequate housing, enjoy equal physical access to all public and many private spaces, and that public transportation is accessible and available.

If you have a disability, you should be able to take part in all aspects of American society and to visit museums, restaurants, government offices, stores, and theaters, among other venues, with little difficulty. In short, the ADA enables PWDs to enjoy life in our nation’s public square.

What are some of the ADA’s other positive changes?

  1. PWDs are more active in the political process, voting in larger numbers than ever before;

  2. PWDs are furthering their education at the college level, and many colleges and universities offer disability support services;

  3. Telecommunication technologies blossomed, such as TYY technology for the Deaf; the internet also offers unlimited possibility for making personal, social, and professional connections among PWDs and their allies;

  4. PWDs often attribute advances in the quality of life issues to the ADA and, in particular, public opinion polls reveal that the general public holds more positive attitudes towards disability and PWDs than in the past.

If you don’t have a disability, you may not realize that nondisabled people benefit from the landmark ADA legislation as well. How so? Well, disability can happen to anyone at anytime, due to accident or the onset of chronic disease or illness. This reality means that the ADA is there to protect and to promote good lives for all of us and our loved ones should the need arise. And things as simple and commonplace as curb cuts on sidewalks and ramps at the entryways to buildings also matter; nondisabled people may rely on both in the fullness of time, either due to age or health. Such modest (and often overlooked) changes benefit everyone.

On a more practical and hard to assess level, the ADA allows nondisabled people to come into more frequent contact with PWDs, who are now a part of mainstream American life and less likely to be institutionalized or confined to their homes. As research in social psychology demonstrates repeatedly, meaningful and positive contact between individuals or groups who did not previously know one another can lead to favorable attitudes and behaviors, including reduced prejudice. Thus, the ADA has afforded people the chance to engage with others they might not have in the past, which can lead to less discrimination or bias. Such positive change happens in the classroom, the workplace, the shopping mall, and on the street.

Whatever our life-circumstances, we all benefit from the ADA—which is good news and what good civil rights legislation does. So, three cheers for the ADA! Let’s look forward to the societal benefits it will give us in the next 25 years.


Dana S. Dunn, a Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean for Special Projects at Moravian College, is a member of the APA’s Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP). He earned his B.A. in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and received his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Virginia. Dunn is the author or editor of 19 books and over 150 journal articles, chapters, and book reviews. His scholarship examines teaching, learning, and liberal education, as well as the social psychology of disability. In 2013, Dunn received the American Psychological Foundation’s Charles L. Brewer Award for Distinguished Teaching of Psychology. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Oxford Bibliographies (OB): Psychology and a member of Board of the Foundation for Rehabilitation Psychology. Dr. Dunn also blogs regularly for Psychology Today’s “Head of the Class” and he is the author of The Social Psychology of Disability (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Image source: Flickr user Keoni Cabral via Creative Commons

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