July 26, 2022

The Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act

July 26, 1990. Disability rights activists’ achieve a major victory for equality when President George HW Bush signs into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.


Cold Open

It’s November 2nd, 1972, in Manhattan.

Judith Heumann sits in her wheelchair and fights through the stream of New Yorkers rushing home from work. To the crowd on the sidewalk, Judith is invisible. Most refuse to acknowledge her, let alone make space for her. To other, less kind New Yorkers, she is a nuisance. When she politely says excuse me, they roll their eyes before reluctantly letting her pass. For Judith, getting around anywhere is exhausting. And today, Judith is going to do something about it.

Eventually, Judith arrives at her destination: the street corner outside of President Richard Nixon’s re-election headquarters.

Judith reaches into her bag and pulls out a sign that reads: “Help Us Break the Chains.” Before long, a large group of citizens who also use wheelchairs or rely on crutches join her. Judith and her fellow protestors inch toward the curb. They wait for the light to turn red so the never-ending flow of traffic will stop just long enough for them to move into the intersection and stage their protest.

Judith’s heart pounds with anticipation. Maybe after this, she thinks, people will finally listen. Soon, the traffic light changes… and Judith and her fellow protestors push their way out into the intersection and block the flow of traffic. When the light turns green… the cars start to honk their horns. But Judith and her comrades don’t clear the street. Instead, they spread out and form a circle to block traffic in all four directions.

As the group brings the busy intersection to a standstill, the sound of horns honking grows louder and louder. Judith and her comrades hold up signs and shout chants, straining to be heard over the din of the car horns. Judith stares right into the grill of a large truck. It blasts its horn impatiently. But she refuses to move. She is determined to show Richard Nixon, and the world, that she and her fellow disabled citizens will not be ignored any longer.

Judith and the other members of her activist group, Disability in Action, are here today to protest the Nixon administration’s decision to veto a piece of landmark legislation called the Rehabilitation Act. The bill would have created unprecedented federal protections against discrimination for people with disabilities. When Nixon vetoed the bill, Judith and her fellow activists were furious. In response, they organized this protest.

Stopping traffic for an hour causing gridlock throughout the city. The traffic jam draws national attention, and powerful people take note. Almost one year later, Nixon reverses course and signs the Rehabilitation Act into law.

It’s a major milestone for Judith and the rest of the disability rights movement. But the law is not a panacea. It’s just one phase in a decades-long struggle for full and equal rights for people with disabilities. In the decades to come, Judith and her fellow activists will continue the fight, they will win their biggest victory yet, when a new bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act, is signed into law on July 26th, 1990.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 26th, 1990: “The Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act”.

Act One: The 504 Sit-In

It’s April 5th, 1977, in San Francisco, California; outside the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. It’s more than four years since Disability in Action shut down New York City’s rush hour traffic.

Brad Lomax, a young Black man with a short afro and receding hairline, sits in his wheelchair in the middle of a large crowd of protestors. He shouts at the top of his lungs. As he chants, Brad observes the mosaic of people around him. There are blind people, deaf people, fellow wheelchair users like himself, and a wide range of people with other disabilities. They have all joined him on this sunny, early spring day to demand action from the federal government.

In 1973, after pressure from activist groups like Disability in Action, President Richard Nixon finally signed the Rehabilitation Act. The bill included a section called 504.

For disabled persons, 504 created important safeguards against discrimination in education, employment, housing, transportation, and access to public buildings, medical care, and many other areas. It was a landmark civil rights achievement for people with disabilities; but only if the federal government followed through and enforced it.

In order for Section 504 to become effective, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had to draft regulations that defined, among other things, what constituted discrimination against disabled persons. Then, these regulations needed to be signed by the Department Secretary. Under the Nixon administration, these critical regulations were drafted but never signed. The result was the same with Nixon’s predecessor, Gerald Ford. Last year, Jimmy Carter campaigned for president on a promise to enact Section 504. But months after his election, the Department Secretary has still not signed the regulations. Instead, to study them, he’s set up a task force; one that doesn’t include representation from the disabled community.

Brad and his fellow protestors are not content with waiting. So they planned a day of nationwide protests for April 5th.

Brad and the rest of the crowd shouts “sign 504!”. As a Black man, Brad grew up fighting against racial discrimination. And when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in college, he had to deal with additional obstacles as someone who used a wheelchair. Simple things like getting on the bus felt like indignities. Because there was no access for disabled persons, Brad’s brother had to lift him out of his wheelchair, and carry him to his seat. And the reverse getting off the bus. Tired of these daily humiliations, Brad joined the fight for Section 504.

And today he's screaming his lungs out until the crowd quiets as the next speaker, a woman, takes the stage.

Judith Heumann talks to the crowd about the importance of Section 504; how it will change the lives of people with disabilities. She shares her frustration with President Carter for his failure to fulfill his campaign promise.

And she ends her speech defiantly, saying: “We will no longer be patient. There will be no more compromise.”

Brad and the others cheer in agreement. 

As the energy among the crowd grows, someone suggests they should move the protest inside. Instantly, Brad and hundreds of other protestors burst through the front doors of the building and head for the offices of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Once inside the building, they arranged to meet with department's staff but the talks are disappointing, it’s clear that protestors are not being taken seriously. But they don’t give up and go home. They decide to stay and stage a sit-in until their demands are met. 

Brad is one of seventy-five protesters who agree to spend the night in the building. It’s not an easy decision. Many of them rely on medicine or medical assistance to survive. Still, they are determined to stay in the building until Section 504 is enacted.

But as the sit-in continues, the protesters begin to run low on food and provisions. Local police have formed a blockade around the building making it difficult to get supplies, or people, in or out. Inside the building, Brad and several of his fellow organizers discuss the dilemma. They need to find a way to sneak food inside the building to keep everyone fed and in place and protesting.

Soon, Brad gets an idea. He is a member of the Black Panther Party, a political organization dedicated to Black nationalism, socialism, and self-defense. So Brad makes a phone call to one of his comrades in nearby Oakland.

Before long, news starts buzzing through the protest camp that the Black Panthers are forcing themselves into the building. 

Inside the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare office, Brad waits by the elevator until the door opens, and six black men in leather jackets and berets appear carrying tubs full of food. He greets them with a grin. Fully resupplied, the protest can continue.

The 504 Sit-in, as this event will come to be known, will last for weeks. The Black Panthers will supply the protesters with food and supplies to keep them going until the end. But in spite of the protesters' perseverance, Section 504 remains unsigned. 

Still, Brad and his fellow organizers don’t give up. While the Sit-In continues, Brad and a small delegation of protestors travel to Washington, D.C., taking their demands directly to the federal government.

Brad and his fellow delegates spend weeks trying to get a meeting with the Department Secretary, but he refuses each time. Again, they do not back down. They follow him around the city and protest wherever he goes. Soon, the media gets wind of their actions, making it all but impossible for the Secretary to ignore their demands. 

Finally, on April 28th, 1977, the news breaks that the Department Secretary has signed Section 504. When Brad and the other protesters hear the news, they cheer in jubilation and triumph. Some weep tears of joy.

When it finally ends, the 504 Sit-In is the longest peaceful sit-in of a federal building in U.S. history. Brad and the other protesters demonstrated that they were just as capable and stubborn as anyone else.

When the Secretary for Health, Education, and Welfare signs Section 504, it marks the beginning of civil rights for people with disabilities. But for Brad, and many organizers like him, Section 504 does not go far enough; it only prohibits discrimination by federal agencies or organizations that receive federal funding. Brad knows firsthand that people with disabilities face separate and unequal treatment in nearly every aspect of their lives. For many disability rights activists, Section 504 is just the beginning of what will surely be a long, lengthy battle.

Act Two: The Capitol Crawl

It’s March 12th, 1990, in Washington, D.C.

Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins sits in a wheelchair staring up the steps leading to the Capitol Building. In front of her, a large crowd of protestors - adult men and women -  make their way up the stairs. Most cannot walk. Since there is no ramp or other accessible alternative, they crawl on their hands and knees.

Jennifer is just a child. But she is brave. And she wants to do her part to spur Congress into action.

It’s been more than a decade since the Secretary for Health, Education, and Welfare signed Section 504, which created unprecedented protections for people with disabilities; but the fight against discrimination continues. Most public transportation is still inaccessible, and most private employers can discriminate against people with disabilities with no consequences at all. As a result of these and other indignities, disability rights activists began to call for a comprehensive civil rights law: the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA. That’s why these people are here today: to perform a bold act of protest they hope will encourage Congress to take action and pass the bill. 

Jennifer watches as her fellow protestors crawl up toward the top of the steps. Some just inch forward on their backs. Others slide on their bellies. Jennifer looks further up to see the giant, intimidating dome of the Capitol Building. For a moment, she hesitates. But she also knows what’s at stake. She wants to be part of this protest and reach the top of these steps where her mother will be waiting.

Many of the adult protestors tried to convince Jennifer not to participate. They worried that the presence of a young child would invoke pity rather than respect. But Jennifer also found lots of support and encouragement from her family, and from the activist community. One protestor told Jennifer to do what was in her heart. Jennifer’s conscience is screaming at her to fight for change.

Once, she and her family were turned away from eating at a restaurant. The waitress said, “No one wants to see you eat.”. The shameful memory is burned into Jennifer’s mind. She wants to show the world that kids with disabilities are as strong and capable as anyone else and that they deserve just as much respect.

So Jennifer climbs out of her wheelchair. She puts her hands on the stone of the first step and begins to drag herself up. But on her first try, she slips. The hard marble cuts into her lip. Several concerned adults offer to help, but she shakes her head ‘no’. She asks for a drink of water, but nothing more. And then she gets back to work.  

Step by step, Jennifer fights through pain and exhaustion and keeps moving forward. News cameras and microphones surround her as the crowd of protesters cheer her on. Hours later covered in sweat, she finally reaches the top. Jennifer’s mother wraps her in a hug as the protestors erupt in applause all around her.

The next day, images of young Jennifer, wearing a red, white, and blue bandana as she crawls up the Capitol steps, are broadcast on the nightly news and printed in newspapers all across the country. The Capitol Crawl, as this protest is known, demonstrates vividly the obstacles that people with disabilities face every day. Jennifer and her fellow protesters showed the world how even the Capitol building, the symbol of American democracy, is inaccessible to them.

In the wake of the Capitol Crawl, pressure mounts on Congress to act.

Four months later, on July 13th, 1990, Congress passes the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA will ban discrimination against Americans with disabilities in jobs, schools, transportation, and in all public places. Its passage represents the culmination of a decades-long battle waged by disability rights activists like Jennifer. But before it can take effect, the bill will need to be signed into law by the President of the United States.

Act Three: ADA signed

It’s July 26th, 1990 on the South Lawn of the White House.

Judith Heumann sits among a crowd of thousands and watches as President George H.W. Bush approaches the podium. It’s a hot humid day and the sky is a deep blue. The crowd is filled with people in wheelchairs, in gurneys, with white canes, people with disabilities of all kinds. A hush falls as the President begins his speech.

Sitting there, listening to the President, Judith is flooded with memories. She thinks back to the traffic jam in New York, the sit-in in San Francisco, the Capitol Crawl here in Washington D.C., and the countless moments of embarrassment and exclusion that inspired those protests. She is 41 years old, she thinks, and only now finally on the verge of being an equal citizen.

At the end of the President’s remarks, he concludes with words that send a ripple through Judith’s body: 

"BUSH: I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say Let the Shameful Wall of Exclusion finally come tumbling down."

Judith watches President Bush sign the bill and joins the crowd in roaring applause. After years of struggle, the ADA is now officially the law of the land.

More than 30 years after its signing, the ADA has transformed access for people with disabilities. Still, challenges remain. Many businesses, places, and communities refuse to comply with the ADA; and the law is still not enforced consistently across the country.

Nevertheless, the ADA represented a huge achievement for disability rights. The day the bill was signed set a record for the most people ever gathered on the White House lawn for such an event. It was a joyous occasion for those who were there in person, and for the millions watching from home, as President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act on this day, July 26th, 1990.


Next onHistory Daily: July 27th, 1890. Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh shoots himself in the chest, a tragic end to a complicated life that will make him one of the most important painters in Western art.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.