#ADA26: How the Americans with Disabilities Act Changed America

Special Advisor for International Disability Rights Judy Heumann discusses the ADA and its 26th anniversary.
Special Advisor for International Disability Rights Judy Heumann discusses the ADA and its 26th anniversary.

“America is stronger and more vibrant; it is a better country because of the ADA.”– President Barack Obama

On July 26, 1990, the United States committed itself to eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities through the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This year, the United States is celebrating the 26th anniversary of this legislation. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment. It also ensured disabled people have equal access to government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. Since its passage, the law has guided a nationwide effort to place inclusivity and accessibility at the center of American Civil Rights, and demonstrates the United States’ leadership on disability rights as part of human rights policy worldwide.

Here are a few ways this legislation impacts the every-day lives of disabled persons in the United States:


“No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability…” – Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 12112

The ADA protects qualified individuals with a disability against discriminatory employment practices. Now more than fifty million individuals who have a disability in the United States have the opportunity to pursue and gain employment in their respective fields, and are protected from discriminatory hiring, firing, and compensation actions. Employers must also provide “reasonable accommodations” for all applicants and employees with disabilities, which can include resources such as a sign language interpreter during interviews, or modified and accessible work spaces.


“. . . [N]o qualified individual with a disability shall, by reasons of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” – Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 12132, State and Local Governments

“Discrimination includes . . . a failure to remove architectural barriers, and communication barriers that are structural in nature, in existing facilities . . . where such removal is readily achievable.” – Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 12182, Public Accommodations

One of the most significant measures of the ADA has been the nationwide effort to maximize accessibility in public spaces. Prior to the ADA, there were significant impediments to access to schools, grocery stores, medical offices, and government buildings for people with disabilities due to the lack of accessible infrastructure. Today, the impact of the ADA can be seen throughout the United States, greatly enhancing the ability of individuals with disabilities to work and live on an equal level with others.


“It shall be considered discrimination . . . for a public entity which operates a fixed route system . . . to fail to provide with respect to the operations of its fixed route system . . ., paratransit and other special transportation services to individuals with disabilities . . .” – Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 12143

Prior to the ADA, the majority of buses and trains did not have lifts or ramps, there was not reliable access to elevators or escalators in public train stations, and there was no consistent availability of directions in Braille at bus stops and train stations. Millions of Americans who rely on public transportation on a daily basis to get to work, drop their children off at school, or travel to visit family, were not able to fully engage in society. As a result of the ADA, the United States has dramatically improved its transportation systems, considering the needs of individuals with mobility disabilities and other disabilities.

As a result of the ADA, today the United States is significantly more inclusive and more accessible than when the ADA was first passed. On the heel of this progress, the United States continues to work each day to use the power of the ADA to improve the lives of people with disabilities throughout the country. As we aim to continue to transform American society for disabled people, we also hope our action will inspire other nations around the world to follow suit. To this end, the United States will continue to work with foreign governments and civil society organizations to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, and ensure their inclusion and full participation. We know discrimination against people with disabilities hinders economic development, limits democracy, and erodes societies. That is why it is essential that we continue to remove barriers, combat discrimination, and create a world in which disabled people enjoy dignity and full inclusion.

About the Author: Makeda Yohannes serves in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

For more information: