Equality Laws in the US

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Guide dog is helping blind people in motion blur.

Of the civil rights laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into legislation in 1990, is the primary law protecting people with disabilities. Over the past few decades, the ADA has gone through amendments for clarity and relevance.

One of those changes combines the ADA with the Office of Civil Rights for enforcement and oversight while giving autonomy to each human rights law and act. Many federal and local statutes protect people from discrimination. But, protecting the rights of people with disabilities was always an amendment. It was not the initial intention of the Act until the ADA. But is there any issue with that, seeing as disability rights are human rights?

People with disabilities omitted from Civil Rights laws in the US

Initially, civil rights laws often overlooked people with disabilities.

For example, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 protects people from housing discrimination based on sex, national origin, race, and religion. However, it took twenty years (1988) for people with disabilities to be protected under the Fair Housing Act.

The Equal Employment Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 also omitted people with disabilities. And, neither made amendments to include disabilities. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act did include people with disabilities but only for federally-funded organizations. It wasn’t until the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that people with disabilities were put first in a United States civil rights law.

As you can see, our legislation hasn’t always upheld and protected people with disabilities in civil rights.

Why doesn’t the US combine and update Civil Rights laws?

Other federal and state laws protect people with disabilities, but none have the same impact as the ADA. The ADA legislation took time to implement after it passed into law. Even today, many organizations selectively follow the nearly thirty-year-old set of laws. The integrity of the ADA could be at risk to permit the consolidation and appeal of the legislation.

How does the US keep the ADA relevant?

White papers or guidelines address the issues related to the interpretation of the ADA laws. The Effective Communication Guide clearly outlines the second part of the ADA laws related to the access of goods and services via communication and information. Likewise, because of the ADA, when new laws pass, like the Affordable Care Act (ACA), people with disabilities and other civil rights protections must be considered and defined. The scope of the ADA is broad, so it encompasses enough areas that it remains relevant and impactful today; 30 years later.

The Department of Justice (Office of Civil Rights) used to take complaints seriously and seek resolution for people who felt violated. However, this practice is a political hot button. So, more Americans are taking their claims to the court system for an official ruling of interpretation and implementation.

chalkboard with "equality" written on it

What can the US learn from others on disability law?

Unlike the United States, where a lawsuit is needed for enforcement of the ADA, the UK’s goal was to create a commission of oversite which makes the need for suits almost nonexistent. In 2019, it was clear that the UK was falling short on the enforcement of the Equality Laws. Without case law, many lawsuits can drag on for multiple years with disappointing resolutions. The Equality and Human Rights Commission got serious about enforcement to eliminate the need for trials and bring equality to people faster. The commission has stepped up the use of their power to close businesses, determine penalties, and prevent inequalities.

The United Kingdom worked hard on the definitions of each law and in the execution of the intention. For example, the regulation of braille is different. The ADA requires braille for people who read braille. The quality of the braille, grade, and layout are not regulated. However, the Equality Act works with The UK Association for Acceptable Formats UKAAF to set the standards for quality braille. The UKAAF controls braille standards from start to finish. This includes proofreading, braille grade, font size, layout, and ease of reading to highlight the intention of the text received by the reader needing braille. If the ADA had a clear set of guidelines, like the UK, braille consumers could receive a better product. Ultimately, businesses purchasing braille would have greater confidence in the quality of the communication that consumers are receiving.

The Courts Decide

In addition to the Department of Justice, the ADA allows the US court system to decide if businesses have met the intention of the law. We are seeing this more with digital compliance. Remember, the ADA was signed into law in July of 1990; long before the digital age. Companies like Domino’s Pizza, Winn-Dixie, and Fox News Network, are just a few that learned about digital compliance via a court ruling or settlement vs clear regulation. 

As the ADA enters 30 years of requiring equal access for Americans with disabilities, it is likely that case law will continue to determine accessibility over new legislation. 

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This post was written by Christine Sket

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