The ADA Turns 30 in the Year of COVID-19

black and white photo of disability rights activists demonstrating
Advocates protesting for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Photo provided by Tom Olin
July 24, 2020

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment, accommodations, and public services.

In recognition of the ADA’s 30th anniversary, Jim Wice, Wellesley’s director of accessibility and disability resources, and Kate Upatham, director of nondiscrimination initiatives and Title IX coordinator/504 coordinator, shared some thoughts about the act in light of lessons we are learning about access during the pandemic.

Has the pandemic changed or challenged how the College makes ADA accommodations for students, staff, and faculty?

Jim Wice: For all of us, remote and now socially distant learning present opportunities to learn and grow, and the pandemic has opened many doors to students, staff, and faculty with and without disabilities. Faculty, staff, and students alike have found ways of effectively doing remote teaching and learning that will be beneficial once the pandemic has ended. Others have found that remote activities can be more challenging, but have taken it as part of the learning process. Those with learning and physical health needs who have found remote learning more challenging are the ones the Accessibility and Disability Resources staff are seeking out to help.

Kate Upatham: It has been important to think broadly about the array of access barriers that exist in different aspects of our school, so that we can plan in advance to make our on-campus and virtual environments as accessible as possible. For example, on today’s campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to think about how physical distancing markers can be made more accessible for people with limited vision, and how to reduce the barrier presented by masks for people who rely on lip reading to help with verbal communication. We can expect going forward that more people will request accommodations from ADR because their accommodation needs will change with our new environment, and we also expect a rise in mental health concerns that may lead to some members of our community needing additional accommodations and support.

Media outlets have published stories about how the types of accommodations companies are making for employees due to the pandemic are what disability advocates have requested for years with no success. What lessons do you hope companies and advocates take away from this experience?

Protestors in San Francisco demonstrating for Section 504 anti-discrimination legislation outside the 50 UN Plaza Building in April, 1977.
Photo provided by Anthony Tusler

Wice: I hope that we all learn—not just the vendors and advocates, but everyone—that there is a creativity and resiliency streak that we all can find if we look hard enough. Providing new methods of access and showing how those methods often help people with and without disabilities goes a long way to creating a more integrated and engaged society. Some of our “norms” need to be challenged every once in a while, so that we can get to another level of access and value each other for the unique gifts we offer.

Upatham: I wish that our society could just spot a problem and rise to the occasion to solve it, but it does not seem to work that way as much as we would like. Disability rights advocates had to occupy federal buildings in 1977—supported by external groups, including the Black Panthers—before the Section 504 regulations (another law protecting the rights of persons with disabilities) were put into effect. That was a community-created crisis that helped move the rights of persons with disabilities forward in the U.S. This moment of crisis leading to remote learning and online services is, of course, created by COVID-19, but it is similarly pushing our society forward toward greater inclusivity in a number of ways. I have been impressed with how people around the world are rethinking everything we believed we knew about how we should function in society. I regret the context of this change, and I recognize that not all online materials are accessible as they should be, but it is wonderful that by providing more services online we have increased accessibility for many members of our society.

What do you think access will look like 30 years from now?

Wice: One way to look at what will happen in the future is to look at the past. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its amendments in 1978 provided for nondiscrimination of individuals with disabilities by those doing work with the federal government. The ADA, signed in 1990, covered civil rights for individuals with disabilities in public and private entities with certain stipulations. Thirty years from now, in 2050, I hope that universal design is a globally accepted approach to providing access to as many as possible. Technology and medical advances could provide advances that we cannot imagine, but at the same time may not go far as some would expect if looking to cure all individuals with disabilities. I expect we will have different challenges based on advances, longevity, etc., and hopefully some solutions to go with them. What we can hope for is a more open and understanding society but ever striving to be better.

Upatham: In the short term, we are seeing enormous changes improving the accessibility of our online environments, which is wonderful. I agree with Jim that in the long run, medical and other technologies will continue to advance, which I anticipate will mean greater physical and virtual access to programs and activities for all members of our society, as well as improved health for all. I would love to see universal design integrated into more of our environments—that would eliminate the need for accommodations to remove access barriers, since a universally designed class or location is designed from the ground up to have minimal or no barriers.