Celebrating 25 Years of Progress: Civil Rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) first became law. Since then, it has stood as an important piece of civil rights legislation, prohibiting discrimination and ensuring that people with disabilities share the same opportunities available to all Americans.

For twenty-five years, the ADA has helped to transform perceptions, promote access, and support success. One of the law’s greatest results has been to affirm the right of self-determination for people with disabilities. It used to be that many life decisions were made for people with disabilities. Today, millions of Americans have the freedom to shape their own lives and determine their own destinies, whether they have physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, learning disabilities, or any other disability.

In the field of education, thanks to the ADA and other civil rights laws, students with disabilities are now entitled to equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular sports. Schools that use online education or electronic devices must provide students with disabilities with equal access to those learning experiences, as well as to educational opportunities outside the classroom. We’re working to ensure positive school climates for all students, including students with disabilities, from addressing bullying and harassment, to ensuring that schools don’t discriminate in how they discipline students. And educational facilities and programs must meet appropriate accessibility standards.

I’ve seen proof of the ADA’s impact on students around the country. I’ve been inspired by the many leaders and advocates who work hard every day to advance the rights of people with disabilities, and by the students with disabilities who are fully participating and excelling in school, including sports and other extracurricular activities.

I’m proud of what we at the Department have been able to achieve – with the help of partners at the national, state, and local levels – to support children and adults with disabilities, from pre-school to college, and beyond. The data show we’re making progress on educational outcomes for students with disabilities in ways that are transformative for students, schools, and society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, the nation’s high school graduation rate is the highest ever – and from 2011 to 2013, the graduation rate of students with disabilities rose by nearly 3 percentage points.

On the civil rights front, between 2009 and 2014, our Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has resolved more than 25,000 ADA-related complaints. These include cases involving school discipline and use of restraint and seclusion; whether students received a free appropriate public education as defined and required by law; equal access to educational opportunities; academic adjustments for postsecondary students; access to appropriate technology, services, and facilities; disability-based bullying and harassment; and retaliation for exercising civil rights.

Since 2009, OCR has issued groundbreaking policy guidance on topics like the use of electronic book readers and other emerging technology in compliance with federal civil rights laws; schools’ obligations to respond to bullying and harassment of students with disabilities; the rights of students with hepatitis B in postsecondary health-related programs; effective communication requirements for students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities in public elementary and secondary schools; and how schools may follow CDC recommendations for protecting against Ebola and the measles without discriminating against students with disabilities.

Our Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) has facilitated a major shift in how the Department oversees the effectiveness of states’ early intervention services and special education programs by developing a new results-driven accountability framework under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Our aim is to achieve better outcomes for the country’s 6.5 million children with disabilities.  This approach pivots from a primary emphasis on compliance to a focus on improved results and outcomes for students with disabilities, including performance on assessments, graduation rates, and early childhood outcomes. In addition, OSERS is also working to build stronger bridges between K-12 and postsecondary education and career pathways for young people with disabilities through the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) signed by President Obama one year ago. WIOA encourages greater alignment and coordination across federal, state and local programs to increase people with disabilities’ access to high quality workforce, education and rehabilitation services provided in the most effective and efficient manner.

But while these gains are promising, we must do even better – from addressing the new realities of the digital age by ensuring equal access for people with disabilities in online learning – to raising high school graduation, postsecondary completion, and career readiness for people with disabilities – to curbing inequity and civil rights violations experienced by students with disabilities.

The 25th anniversary of the passage of the ADA is more than a celebration. It’s an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the values that the ADA represents and to renew our commitment to helping all Americans succeed – in schools, workplaces, and every part of public life.

We at the Department remain steadfast in our goal – working together with schools, parents and guardians, and stakeholders – to realize the promise of the ADA.

Catherine Lhamon is the assistant secretary for Civil Rights