The ADA is the Floor, Not the Ceiling—We Need More

Kehsi Iman Wilson

Every year in July, like clockwork, many Americans repeat the myth that one law passed three decades ago — the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — cured America of ableism. 

I’m not just talking about former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) saying that ​“under the ADA, we are all winners” in 1990. Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) tweeted two years ago in celebration of the ADA’s ​“equal access and opportunity for all,” and Minnesota State Rep. Liz Lee said last year that the ADA ​“ensured that all people deserve equal respect and treatment in all aspects of life.” 

Many disabled people can also rattle off stories about bosses and colleagues telling them how the ADA fixed ableism. 

The truth: the ADA, passed on July 26, 1990, isn’t enough to defeat ableism — and it never has been.

Disabled people have waited and struggled for decades for another round of legislative and cultural justice — and we are fervently organizing for it with renewed energy.

The ADA established crucial protections for many people with disabilities, but always provided the most protection for those with time and money, especially the means to hire a lawyer. Accommodations in schools and workplaces, accessibility in businesses and on public transportation, and the overall right to exist in public spaces has increased exponentially since the ADA was passed, but it is still spotty and unequal across the United States and often dependent on your disability and access to wealth.

The frequent necessity of hiring a lawyer to access ADA protections has restricted many benefits of the law to the most privileged disabled people from the very beginning.

The ADA is Just the Foundation

The ADA was never supposed to be the end. As Justin Dart, Jr., considered by some to be a father of the ADA, said when it was passed: ​“ADA is only the beginning. It is not a solution. Rather, it is an essential foundation on which solutions will be constructed.”

The ADA mirrored the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in many ways and was a win for disability rights activists because it promised basic protections against discrimination that didn’t exist before. But just as the Civil Rights Act fails to adequately protect Black Americans and other people of color from things like racial bias, voting restrictions, violence at the hands of law enforcement, or wage and wealth gaps established through decades of government-backed plunder, the ADA also falls short. 

This is why I recently co-founded an organization called New Disabled South. Our mission is to fight for liberation, justice and fundamental rights for all disabled people in the South — and in doing so, all disabled people across the country.

It’s a big fight, because disabled people in the South are under attack — and the ADA isn’t enough to protect us. So we are fighting to expose the depth of the problems and for brand new legislative solutions. We are fighting against impossible voting barriers, like the restriction of access to absentee ballots and the criminalization of assisting disabled voters. 

Disabled Voting Rights

Our main struggle and campaign is to pass five disabled voting bills of rights over the next five years in state legislatures across the South.

These disabled voting bills of rights will protect disabled voters’ legal right to vote. We need these protections because without them we simply can’t access the polls in the ways voters should be able to easily access the polls. Given our physical restrictions, that means we need a low administrative burden right to vote by mail, to accessible polling locations, to get assistance with our ballots, and to drive-through voting — all methods of voting under attack across the South.

We have also seen extreme state violence against disabled people across the South, particularly over the past decade with high-profile cases like Ethan Saylor, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson and the fatal shooting of Magdiel Sanchez. 

Those tragedies unfortunately aren’t exceptions. Nearly half of people killed by police in the United States have a disability — and these are frequently disabled people of color. Meanwhile, 55% of Black disabled men have been arrested at least once by the time they are 28, and 40% of the current prison population is disabled. Police, prisons and courts are a disability justice issue because they are hurting disabled people. 

That’s why at New Disabled South we are also fighting to end such criminalization with targeted campaigns and grassroots organizing to educate disabled people around the harms of policing and to mobilize our communities to dismantle these systems. The ADA doesn’t address the dire need for systemic changes in how we are treated by cops, courts, jails or prisons.

Intersecting Issues

Poverty in the disabled community, especially across the South, hasn’t been solved by the ADA. Despite supposed equal access to jobs and housing — our people are living in poverty at twice the rate of non-disabled people. And we are seeing disabled people forced out of communities and into nursing homes, at all ages. A staggering 655,000 people are on state waiting lists to receive Medicaid waivers to receive care in their homes, and parents with disabled children are often separated from their kids or forced to live in poverty because they themselves have to stay home and provide critical care. We are fighting across every single one of our states to end this inhumane backlog, investing nearly $100,000 in ad campaigns calling on state leaders to fund waiver slots. We won’t stop until every single Southern disabled person waiting to come home is home. 

Everything progressives fight for is bound up in disability. Racism, environmental injustice, climate change, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism, colonialism, xenophobia — all of these are disabling forces. Our people, across every single issue you care about, need you to care about disability — because at the margins of every issue you care about you will find us. 

The ADA simply doesn’t account for our multi-issue lives. We need you to be on our side.

It’s time for our political and cultural leaders to do better for disabled people. Let’s stop racist police and courts and prisons from killing Black disabled people, let’s fight for our right to vote, and let’s ensure our people come home and can afford our bills. Let’s allow all disabled people to live and thrive. 

The time is now to make the lives of all disabled people better. If you’re celebrating the ADA this month, transform your celebration into action for a better future for disabled people. The ADA isn’t enough, it never was, and we need more.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on July 28, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Kehsi Iman Wilson is the Chief Operating Officer of New Disabled South.

Visit Workplace Fairness pages on disability discrimination for information about disabled workers’ rights.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.