On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most sweeping affirmation of rights for the disabled in American history at the time, into law.
As disability rights attorney Arlene Mayerson would later write, the story of the ADA began “when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children.” Activists explicitly compared their struggle to the Civil Rights movement, arguing that without federal requirements in place, the disabled faced discrimination both as patrons of public spaces and businesses and in seeking employment. In 1986, the National Council on Disability, an independent government agency, issued a report that reached the same conclusion, highlighting the many gaps in federal law that made full participation in society and equal opportunities for employment impossible for many disabled Americans.
Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Patrisha Wright, cofounder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, federal legislation similar to a version of the Civil Rights Act for the disabled gained support in the late 80s. The eventual bill, the ADA, covered a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. The bulk of the act provides legal recourse against employers who discriminate against the disabled and set standards of access to public buildings and public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, etc.). It also established federal laws regarding service animals, among other things.
In March of 1990, a group of disability rights activists staged the Capitol Crawl, in which disabled people pulled themselves up all 100 steps of the Capitol building in order to highlight the nation’s lack of accessibility. Despite pressure from some church groups, who felt the ADA unfairly burdened them, the bill passed the House by unanimous voice vote and the Senate 76-6, paving the way for its signing on July 26 by President Bush, who said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”