This past Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA). Enacted with broad bipartisan support, the ADA was the first (and last) significant piece of human rights legislation passed in the US since the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In many ways, the ADA mirrored the protections granted with the Civil Rights Act by outlawing discrimination based on physical or mental disability. Employers covered by the ADA cannot fire or refuse to hire someone based on a real or perceived disability. They are also required provide reasonable accommodations to job applicants and employees with disabilities, unless doing so would require considerable difficulty or expense. An employer might be required to provide a screen reader that uses a speech synthesizer or braille display to allow a blind or visually impaired worker to read text on a computer screen. They are not required, however, to hire a physically disabled worker for a position that requires a significant level of manual labor, such as stocking shelves in a warehouse.
Unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA also mandated significant changes in the physical environment in which all Americans currently live and work. Under Title III of the ADA, any building completed after January 1993 must be designed so as to be accessible to those with physical disabilities. Doorways must be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, bathrooms must have grab bars and sinks that can be used by someone in a wheelchair, elevators must have braille numbers for those with impaired vision, and a certain number of parking spaces must be set aside for those with disabilities.