The Americans with Disabilities Act: 25 years later

Photo/Mike Lovett

Susan Parish

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, it was viewed as landmark legislation, albeit long overdue.  Now, 25 years later, has the ADA been effective in prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for persons with disabilities

Susan Parish, the Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Disability Policy, director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy and associate dean for research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, sat down with BrandeisNOW to help answer that question.

Parish’s research and expertise are centered on disabilities, particularly family support, health and financial well being for people with disabilities. Her research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Parish is a Fellow of the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the director of the Ruderman Social Justice Scholars in Disability program at Brandeis, which places undergraduate students in policymaking, research and community service internship positions with groups focused on improving the lives of people with disabilities.

BrandeisNOW: Now that we've had 25 years to see the ADA in effect, what are some positive outcomes from this legislation? Are there any negative outcomes? 

Susan Parish: The ADA was watershed legislation when it was enacted in 1990, with the intention of eliminating disability-based discrimination. It has had an enormous impact in the sense that it demonstrates our national commitment to the full civil and human rights of people with disabilities and it outlaws discrimination against people with disabilities. However, in terms of changing the daily lives of people with disabilities, it has had mixed results. 

Since it was enacted, a series of Supreme Court decisions weakened the protections of the Act by imposing very narrow interpretations of disability. Congress passed new legislation in 2008 that was called the ADA Amendments Act to reverse some of these decisions and strengthen the ADA. In passing the law in 2008, Congress re-emphasized its original intent for the ADA to be broadly inclusive. Researchers tend to agree that the ADA has not been successful in increasing the employment of people with disabilities, although there is disagreement as to why this has been the case. 

BrandeisNow: In your opinion, what is the weakest part of the ADA? 

Parish: I think there are two major limitations of the ADA. First, the ADA is a voluntary compliance law. That is, employers are simply expected to voluntarily comply – they do not have any reporting requirements. This is different from other civil rights laws, in which employers must track and report their compliance, and in which compliance is mandatory. Second, the ADA provides only injunctive relief and attorney fees to plaintiffs who successfully sue and win their cases. Injunctive relief is simply when the court orders the defendant to fix what they were doing wrong. By strictly limiting monetary rewards or damages, there are few incentives to sue under the ADA. Employers may think it’s not worth complying with the law because the likelihood of a lawsuit is so small, and the amount of damages, even when an employer loses, are relatively low. Employers would be more likely to follow the law, and hire and promote people with disabilities, if the incentives were stronger.

BrandeisNow: What can be done to strengthen the ADA? 

Parish: I feel that the country needs a full-scale affirmative action program for people with disabilities. Even though the U.S. still has pervasive racism and employment discrimination, there is no doubt that affirmative action has transformed the employment landscape for people of color. I think that we need similar measures for people with disabilities.

BrandeisNow: What are the public and the media most unaware of in terms of the ADA? 

Parish: People with disabilities are an untapped talent pool in the U.S. There have been many reports and studies that have concluded that U.S. employers would really benefit from hiring people with disabilities because they are committed and productive and want to work. Hiring people with disabilities makes good business sense, in addition to being the right thing to do ethically.

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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