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

Know It 2 Own It: Teaching and Learning About Disability Rights

In a recent blog post, we introduced you to “Know It 2 Own It,” a campaign to encourage Americans to learn more about the disability rights movement and history that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July of 1990.

This month, as students across the country settle into their daily academic routines, now is the perfect time to think about teaching and learning about disability rights.

American history is also the history of people with disabilities. Though her life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, many 21st century students still find inspiration in the remarkable career of  Helen Keller – the American author, lecturer and activist and the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree. The story of her early years is the subject of the powerful play, “The Miracle Worker.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered by many as one of the nation’s greatest elected leaders, helped guide the country and the world through some the 20th century’s greatest crises while using  a wheelchair. One of the most beloved singers alive today, singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, was born blind. These are just some of examples of the contributions that people with disabilities have made to the richness and diversity of our shared American life through the years.

The disability rights movement is a part of American history, and understanding that history is valuable to all of us. The struggle for disability rights is part of the broader cause of civil rights and human rights.

This month’s guest video blogger, Rebecca Cokley, is Executive Director for the National Council on Disability (NCD). In the video, she describes how she got involved in the disability rights movement as a child, what she thinks are the most important messages for young people with disabilities, and why she is committed to mentoring others. Her motto is:  “Lift as you Climb.”

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) wants to hear from you. Have you found mentors in your local community that could teach students more about disability rights? Does a member of your school community have a family member with a disability who might be willing to share their experience?  Does someone have a family member who works in a disability-related non-profit, business, or government agency?

Please let us know how you are working to bring about positive change in your community by sharing your story on social media with the hashtag #know2own.

Click here to view past Know It 2 Own It blogs and join us here next month. October is Disability Employment Month!

Sue Swenson is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Know It 2 Own It: Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act

This week, we celebrate the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law. This landmark legislation was the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities. It prohibited discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

Earlier this year, during a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama said, “For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways.  And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens.  Our rights, our freedoms — they are not given.  They must be won.  They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline, and persistence and faith.”

The President’s words also ring true for the disability community and the ADA.

Over the next year, we will be posting monthly blogs featuring people who participated in and led the disability rights movement, as well as young adults and students working to make a difference in their communities.  Together, we carry the torch forward. When we know our history, we can own our rights. As we often say, to know it is to own it.

During this time, we encourage you, your friends, and your family to learn about the disability rights movement. We want to hear from you. Please let us know how you are working to bring about positive change in your community by sharing your story on social media with the hashtag #know2own.

Check out our first video blog with Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon and Michael Yudin, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services:

Sue Swenson is Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.