Before the ADA

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 02, 2022 # Lifestyle

Allen RuckerI’m sure someone more knowledgeable about the law will soon expand on this matter, but I think it’s understood among disability-rights groups that the current Supreme Court is gunning for the ADA and even earlier disability statutes like the famous Section 504 in the 70’s that outlawed discrimination in all Federally funded matters. According to a recent op-ed piece on, at least some disability rights lawyers are hesitant to bring cases before the current court for fear that it will open the door for the conservative majority to gut these laws. That also means many cases of blatant discrimination will go unheard.

Signs of this just popped up recently. In April of this year, a deaf and legally blind woman sued a rehab facility because they refused to provide an ALS interpreter for physical therapy sessions. The facility said she could write notes and gestures. A lower court said the woman “only” suffered “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress” and was not entitled to monetary damages, and the Supreme Court agreed. It makes no sense to me, either, but citing three or four different statutes, they said that’s the law.

What if the ADA, like abortion, was determined to be a state and not a federal matter or had no grounding in any law? It certainly wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution. For the millions of disabled people under 30 or so, the ADA is simply a fact of life. They take for granted all the rights to access and to fair treatment. All of that, or at least big chunks, could go away if five out of nine justices decide that it should.

Let’s take a quick trip back to yesteryear and see what life was like before the ADA. I called a few disabled friends with long memories. My old friend and fellow Reeve blogger, Tim Gilmer, still gets steamed thinking about the myriad of times he was dissed, hassled, and ignored. Injured in the dark ages of 1965, there were no ramps, no disabled parking, no cut curbs, and most importantly, no accessible bathrooms. Imagine being anywhere in public and having to use the john. The consequences were usually ugly and embarrassing. And access to nothing. Tim remembers going to a vocational rehabilitation office in LA on the second floor with no elevator (and before cell phones). He had to wait around until someone came down and had to ask them to go back up and announce his presence in the lobby. In 1980 he went down to “the best place to watch a movie” in Portland and was greeted by a circular staircase of 30 or more steps.

Candace Cable, a nine-time Paralympian and six-time winner of the Boston Marathon, women’s wheelchair division, also has a suitcase full of pre-ADA horror stories. She flew a lot in those days, before aisle chairs or any other accommodation, and remembers having to leave her regular seat and scoot on her rear down the aisle, past rows of passengers, to the restroom, where she then had to arm-press her way onto the seat. (Also, apropos of nothing, she remembers traveling to the Soviet Union where they didn’t stage Paralympics because, in their works, “we have no disabled people in the USSR.”)

Disabled people were rarely seen in those days, and for a good reason – they couldn’t get anywhere! You wouldn’t see them on the bus because they couldn’t get on the bus. The non-disabled pubic collectively shrugged,” What’s the big deal? I never see disabled people trying to go to the movies.” This is what you call a conundrum, a painful one if you were disabled.

All the aspects of getting a job for the disabled were much harder since there were few specific provisions against discrimination in the application process, hiring, firing, and everyday courtesy. “Sorry, you make others nervous.” Want to take a quick bathroom break to freshen up? Forget about it. The bathroom mirror begins where your head ends.

A principal loss, if the ADA was weakened or restricted, would be psychological. It has been a huge step in making 61 million disabled Americans feel like first-class citizens. A ramp or a wider aisle in a department store or an ALS signer at a press conference is not just a mode of physical or communicative access. It also underscores recognition and respect. If you’ve ever had to hold a business meeting in a parking lot because there was no way for you to get to an office or conference room, you know what I mean. Even with the ADA, many people with disabilities undergo daily, as quoted above, “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress.” Without it, everyone with a disability would soon feel that way.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.