Equality for Americans with disabilities: A timeline

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects 56.3 million Americans from discrimination in all areas of life, including work, school and transportation.

Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the law guarantees Americans with disabilities unrestricted access to public buildings, equal opportunity in employment and equal access to government services.

The comprehensive legislation was the culmination of decades of advocacy and struggle. In the years since its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been updated to broaden its reach and more effectively provide equal civil rights for all.

Below are some of the landmark events related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.


 

Two men in wheelchairs and one man standing (National Library of Medicine)
(National Library of Medicine)

1920 The Smith-Fess Act

Also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, this law established a federal program to provide vocational assistance to Americans with physical disabilities. The Smith-Fess Act was modeled on an earlier law aimed at rehabilitating disabled World War I veterans.


 

Man signing document while other stand behind him (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

1935 Social Security Act

In addition to developing a system of benefits for the elderly, the Social Security Act of 1935, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, provided benefits for the blind and the physically disabled.


 

Man signing document with another man nearby (© Getty Images)
(© Getty Images)

1956 Creation of Social Security Disability Insurance

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Social Security Amendments of 1956, which created a Social Security Disability Insurance program for workers with disabilities aged 50 to 64. Two years later, the benefits were extended to the dependents of workers with disabilities.


 

Elevator up and down button in braille (Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

1968 Architectural Barriers Act

The Architectural Barriers Act addresses the most significant obstacle to employment for people with disabilities: the physical design of buildings and facilities. The act requires that all buildings designed, constructed, altered or leased with federal funds be made accessible to people with disabilities.

 


 

Man in scooter exiting bus (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

1973 The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 extends vocational training programs and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by federally funded and assisted programs, federal employers, federal contractors and programs receiving federal funding.


Man signing document while others watch (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

1990 Americans with Disabilities Act

President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. Among its provisions, it prohibits discrimination in hiring and guarantees equal access to education and public facilities.


George W. Bush talking to people in a room (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

2008 The ADA Amendments Act

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 makes important changes to how “disability” is defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, favoring a broad and inclusive interpretation. These changes make it easier for a person seeking protection under the law to establish eligibility.