Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

"We have created an image of disabled people that is perhaps the greatest barrier they face. We see the disability—the chrome and the leather, the guide dog, the hearing aid, the crutches—and look the other way. Just as we cannot seem to see the man in the policeman, so imposing are the uniform and the cultural expectations that go with it, so we cannot see the woman in the wheelchair. We do not see, nor do we look to find, her abilities, interests, and desires."

-Frank Bowe, 1978

People often fear differences. People with disabilities—whether physical or mental—have been regarded over the last centuries with either pity or fear. Society did not often believe a blind woman, a deaf man or a wheelchair-bound child could contribute to society. They were often denied basic civil rights.

A Time for Change

Attitudes started to change in the 20th century. Changes were made after many permanently injured soldiers came home from both world wars as well as Korea and Vietnam. 

During the civil rights reform-minded era of the 1960s, ideas began to change not only about race and gender but also about age and ability. People became more aware of past discrimination. They became more aware of ways to correct these wrongs. Social changes in funding and programs that started with the Social Security Act in 1935 continued into the 1960s and 1970s, and these bills began to address various aspects of disabled people’s lives and needs.

For people with disabilities, often their causes and issues had been kept from public view because of their difficulty with mobility or communication. People often saw their inabilities rather than their capabilities. That began to change, however. People with disabilities begin to protest discrimination. They organized to create change, and society began to consider their needs and rights. People with special needs were no longer “the hidden minority.”

A Dark Past

The changes that began in the 1950s and '60s were badly needed. For people born with disabilities before the changes began to occur, life could be very difficult. 

In 1900 students in Iowa and elsewhere in the nation went to special schools or institutions if they had mental or physical disabilities. Iowa children had to leave their families and move to Vinton to attend the School for the Blind or Council Bluffs to attend the School for the Deaf. If a child had a mental disability, he or she might go to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. The mission of this school stated that it wanted “to make each child as nearly self-supporting as practicable.” 

In 1930 Dr. D. W. Smouse donated a third of a million dollars to build a special school for disabled children. The Smouse School in Des Moines was the first school in the nation built specifically for disabled children, especially those with polio. This school had special construction—such as a long circular ramp—for children with wheelchairs and crutches. Railings were installed in every room.

A Brother Helps

In 1990 Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin was one of the authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Senator Harkin was interested in the quality of life for people with disabilities because of his own personal experiences growing up with his brother. Frank Harkin, the senator's brother, had lost his hearing at a young age. 

On July 26, 1990, over 3,000 people gathered on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. and watched the signing of the American with Disabilities Act. ADA is now considered civil rights legislation—to make life for people with disabilities more fair and just. The purpose of ADA is to help people experience “full inclusion into the mainstream of American life.” The ADA protects the civil rights of over 57 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities. 

What Does it Mean?

The law addressed employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications. In other words, society was now required to remove traditional and perhaps unintentional barriers and provide equal access for all disabled people.

The spirit of ADA was collaboration and cooperation, not coercion. This meant that businesses and schools should work together to guarantee disabled people’s rights. These adjustments or accommodations were not to pose “an undue burden” (not too much time and expense). 

One area affected by ADA was employment. People were not to be denied a job because of their disability. Another phrase was “reasonable accommodation.” In the job hiring process or the work itself, some adjustments may have to be made to help the disabled person complete the work. 

Another part of ADA was public accommodations. Businesses and organizations such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, stores, sports stadiums, funeral homes, hospitals, buses, trains, parks, schools, nursing homes and day care centers were not to discriminate based on a disability. The phrase used was “full and equal enjoyment.” 

With the passage of the ADA the public has become accustomed to parking spaces for disabled people, special entry ramps and door entrances, curb cuts, elevators with Braille floor designations, and specially designed restroom facilities. The physical changes have been important in the day-to-day lives of the disabled. Additionally, ADA has encouraged the general public to become more observant and thoughtful of the rights of people with special needs. 


  • Stephen L. Percy, Disability, Civil Rights, and Public Policy: The Politics of Implementation. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1989.
  • Paul Wehman, The ADA Mandate for Social Change. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, 1993.
  • Sen. Tom Harkin, US Senate webpage,, 2005
  • "The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990", US Department of Justice.