Thirty Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990


President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act
President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act July 26th, 1990. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Flickr

Written by Lauren Gilbreth, Government Publications 

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush; this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of its passing. The ADA was and is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination and provide them with greater access to public life. Divided into five titles, the first four each address a different area of public life covered by the Act: employment, state and local government, public accommodations, and telecommunications.  The ADA slowly went into effect over the course of the four years following its passing, with full compliance expected by the end of 1994.

The institution of the Americans with Disabilities Act was not welcomed by everyone. Numerous court cases challenged the new regulations required, including a set of Supreme Court cases known as the Sutton Trilogy. The Sutton cases resulted in a narrower definition of disability than the one provided in the initial act, which in turn limited the number of people protected by the ADA. A later Supreme Court Case, Toyota Motor Manufacturing v Williams, further limited the protections provided by the Act by once again pushing for a narrower definition of disability.

These Supreme Court Cases, as well as other issues, eventually resulted in the ADA Amendments Act, signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush. The Amendments Act expanded the legal definition of disability and provided broader protections against discrimination. While the 2008 Amendment was the most major change to the Act since it was passed, there have been several updates and additions in the past decade and a half, adapting it to changing times and technologies.

The full text of the act is available through the University of Memphis Libraries (  Numerous government publications connected to the ADA are also available from the Libraries, ranging from congressional hearings concerning aspects of the act to a guide to writing an accommodation request letter. Many of these resources are highlighted in the ADA Awareness Virtual Book Display: If you’re interested in exploring the ADA, its history, and its applications further, the following links should also be useful:

The National Park Service and Accessibility: Change for All

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

A man in his off-road wheelchair enjoying Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank Flickr

The National Park Service lists the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of its guiding principles in its continued efforts to make parks around the country more accessible to all visitors. On their website, the NPS outlines their efforts at compliance with the commercial section of the Act, stating that “accessibility law prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.” In 2012, a task force was created to fully realize accessibility goals that dated back to 1961 and have continued up through today; the task force admitted that the National Park Service has not done enough in the past to assure that visitors with disabilities could fully enjoy what their parks had to offer. In a document titled All In! Accessibility in the National Park Service 2015-2020, it outlined a 5 year strategic plan to enact widespread improvements to National Parks and create a “cultural shift” that would stretch well beyond 2020. The Task Force expressed the following at the beginning of this process: “Barriers to National Park Service facilities and programs deny visitors with disabilities the opportunity to experience their parks, and our ability to share America’s stories with all visitors. While notable advancements have been made, much is needed to break down the barriers and embrace greater inclusivity.”

The NPS has also created an interpretative Disability History Series for those interested in the long path towards the ADA and wider accessibility in our society, which you can view here. Finally, the Government Publications collection at McWherter Library contains material on individual parks printed in braille for visitors with low sight or blindness; these materials are created at the Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services, and you can further explore its role in the National Park Service’s goals toward greater accessibility here. It will be interesting to observe the NPS as it continues to strive towards making its parks, one of our nation’s great resources in education and recreation, more accessible and inclusive to all potential visitors.

Additional ADA Government Resources

Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications 

To support the ADA, many federal agencies have adopted their own policies to help accommodate those who need it. Agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for example, have an extensive list of accessibility guides. These guides range from services such as “711 for Telecommunications Relay”, Closed Captioning (for a variety of different formats), to “Speech-to-Speech Relay” services.

Even with these protocols in place though, no system is perfect, and that is where the Government Accountability Office (GAO) comes in. In 2015, the GAO submitted a report titled: “Accessible Communications : FCC should evaluate the effectiveness of its public outreach efforts”. This report provided an evaluation, encouraging the FCC to consider their outreach endeavors and how it affects their accessibility programs. These types of inquiries and evaluations ensure that protocols and services are constantly being updated and improved.

In addition to the FCC, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has their own ways of contributing to the ADA. In their recent publication “Beyond the Cases: 26 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act”, the DOJ features stories from around the country and how the ADA has affected change. From transportation, voting, accessible technology, and other areas of everyday life, the DOJ highlights ways the DOJ has helped contribute to the enforcement of the ADA.

Alongside these other agencies, Access Board (also known as the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) is an independent federal agency that helps develop (in their own words from their “About” page): “accessible design” and “accessibility guidelines and standards”. Since 1973, Access Board has provided guidance in assuring that facilities such as recreational areas, buildings, sidewalks, and even medical equipment is ADA compliant and is accessible for all. To celebrate the 30 anniversary of the ADA, Access Board is hosting a virtual celebration via Zoom, open to the public. Details can be found here.


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