Webcast archive: Americans with Disabilities Act, Part I – Precursors

Today, we discuss the laws that paved the way for the ADA.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck and Christian Debray discuss the ADA’s (Americans with Disabilities Act) 25th anniversary:

  • Part I – Precursors

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • 25 years ago, the U.S. congress passed and the president signed a law that granted a broad range of civil rights to people with disabilities, called the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
  • In our online discussions, we’re going to tell the story of the law and its implications in three parts
    • Part I – In “Precedents” we’ll describe the laws that existed before 1990 to guaranty civil rights for disabled people, and why the ADA was necessary
    • Part II – in “The Bill” we’ll explain the statute itself and what had to happen to get it passed.
    • Part III – “The Implications” will talk about the highs and lows since the law came into effect, and the evolution of the disability rights landscape in the past 25 years.
  • Since we will be away for the next three weeks, we’ll present part I today, and take up the second and third parts on June 26 and July 3, before taking a summer break.


  • The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.
    • This law mandated that all new construction undertaken by the federal government had to be accessible to people with disabilities, according to access standards already in effect.
    • Independently, many states had more or less incorporated access requirements into their building codes.
    • But a lack of enforcement of accessibility standards during construction, and a reluctance by state agencies to punish violations after the fact, meant that even new buildings often included significant barriers to people with disabilities.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
    • This little section, at the very end of the bill, had enormous consequences, far beyond expectations. The reason: federal funds go everywhere; to public and private organizations, towns, cities, counties, states and the federal government itself.
    • Some examples of groups and services affected by § 504
      • Schools and universities
      • Hospitals and social service agencies
      • Public transportation
      • Public housing
      • Telecommunications, and many more.
    • Four years after the law was adopted, there still weren’t any regulations to put it into effect. So a group of disability rights activists occupied the office of the secretary of Health Education and Welfare for 25 days until the agreed to issue regulations.
    • In all, 80 federal agencies published regulations to implement § 504, the latest more than 15 years after the law was passed.
    • What does § 504 do?
      • It prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from programs or services offered by those receiving federal funding
      • It requires them to make reasonable modifications to their services to accommodate people with disabilities.
      • Prohibits discrimination in employment, and requires a covered agency to provide reasonable accommodations (if necessary) to enable to people with disabilities them to accomplish the essential functions of their jobs.
      • Develop, submit and follow a plan to make the program and infrastructure accessible, and designate a person to put the plan into action.
      • Ensure that renovated areas are made accessible, and that an accessible path of travel is created to allow people with disabilities to get to the renovated area.
    • The Air Carriers Access Act of 1986
      • Prohibits discrimination by carriers providing regularly scheduled service.
      • Requires airlines to provide assistance with boarding and debarkation, and accessibility features on new airplanes.
    • The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988
      • Prohibits discrimination by owners of public or private housing; they cannot refuse to rent or sell to a disabled person.
      • Requires new apartment buildings with more than four units to include at least one accessible unit.
      • Obliges owners to allow disabled people to make reasonable modification to their apartments to make them accessible.
      • Requires owners to make reasonable changes to policies to avoid discrimination, such as suspending a “no pets” rule to allow a guide dog.
    • The Telecommunication Amendments Act (1996) amending the 1934 law
      • Requires that telecommunication equipment manufactured after 1996 be accessible, including televisions (captions and audio descriptions), telephones (hearing aid compatible) etc.
      • Obviously with the changes in technology, newer laws (§ 508 of the Rehabilitation act) has mandated access to the internet, computers and mobile devices.