Celebrating the ADA: 32 Years of Accessibility
July 26th is the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Imagine having to ask your neighbor to make personal calls for you. That’s how life was before the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) for Deaf and hard of hearing people. This piece explores how life was before and after the ADA, and provides an overview of benefits for businesses.
One Morning in 1986
You wake up and realize you’re not feeling well. You need to let your boss know you’re sick, but your boss doesn’t have a TTY, a device Deaf and hard of hearing people use for phone calls. Telephone relay services, where a trained operator facilitates a conversation between a phone caller and a TTY user — aren’t existent yet. You decide to ask your next-door neighbor to call for you even though you’re feeling weak and worry that you’ll spread the cold you have. Your neighbor isn’t home, so out of desperation, you try the neighbor across the street even if you don’t know her very well. That woman looks at you in pity and nods. You give her the number, she calls, and then says your boss requires a doctor’s note.
You again have no way of calling the doctor and walk-ins aren’t allowed. You sigh and ask your neighbor if she is also willing to call the doctor. She rolls her eyes at the inconvenience but agrees. You watch her intently as she reaches the doctor. She is difficult to lipread. After about fifteen minutes, she finally hangs up and says your appointment is at 1:00 p.m. You thank her and go back home and turn on the television. Nothing is captioned, so you fall asleep for a nap.
You arrive at the doctor’s office prepared with a notepad and pen since doctors aren’t required to provide interpreters. The nurse is friendly, but the doctor, irritated by your request to write back and forth, speaks instead. You choose not to argue because you’re too weak and tired. The doctor prescribes antibiotics, so you head to the drugstore. When you arrive, the pharmacist says it’ll be 20 minutes. There’s a television, but the show playing isn’t captioned. You pick up a few magazines and read as you wait. After 25 minutes, you wonder when the medicine will be ready. At the 30-minute mark, you approach the pharmacist asking if your prescription is prepared. She nods and hands you the package. You note from the bag that it was ready 15 minutes earlier. They called your name, but you didn’t hear it.
You go home and worry that you will have to ask the neighbor to call your boss the next morning, since you can’t go back for at least two days. You sigh and climb back into bed.
This is how life was for over 30 million Deaf and hard of hearing Americans before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990. On July 26, we celebrate the 32nd anniversary of this historical, life-changing civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in different areas, such as employment, education, telecommunications, businesses, and transportation.
It’s hard to remember when we didn’t have built-in captioning on television, relay services, smartphones, or many other things that we take almost for granted today. But all the frustrations Deaf and hard of hearing people experienced daily became part of a national drive and advocacy efforts among people with disabilities. They were frustrated with the accessibility barriers and injustices they encountered every day, despite laws such as Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that banned federal funding recipients from engaging in discrimination based on disability.2 When key Supreme Court decisions endangered Section 504 — the precursor of the ADA — people with disabilities fought back, and this movement led to the momentous ADA.
The ADA initially faced intense backlash from businesses because they mistakenly believed it was cost-prohibitive. Research showed that the opposite was true. According to the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Policy, a 2020 survey showed that 56% of workplace accommodations cost nothing, while the remaining accommodations cost an average of $500.1 Even so, the benefits of providing accommodations continue to outweigh the costs.
Additionally, businesses can qualify for tax credits and incentives. For example, there are two federal tax incentives for small and/or larger businesses that provide accessibility. The U.S. Department of Justice states that small businesses with 30 or fewer employees or total revenues of under one million dollars can use the Disabled Access Credit for up to $5,000 to offset their costs for access.4
Another reason businesses, regardless of size, should comply with the ADA is that it’s good business practice. The Deaf and hard of hearing (and disability) community is extremely close-knit. There’s even a website dedicated to “Deaf-friendly” businesses filled with reviews of businesses that accommodate (or don’t accommodate) people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. There are apps, websites, and social media influencers who will spread the word quickly if a business is inclusive or not. Consumer trust is a critical factor of a successful business, and a business being accessible can lead to greater revenue and a stronger community standing.
An April 2021 essay by Tim Stobierski for the Harvard Business School Online discusses different types of corporate social responsibility. “Corporate social responsibility initiatives can, for example, be a powerful marketing tool, helping a company position itself favorably in the eyes of consumers, investors, and regulators,” Stobierski states.3
He adds that performing socially responsible actions can improve employee satisfaction and retention, hiring practices, and value delivery to customers. “This reflection can often lead to innovative and groundbreaking solutions that help a company act in a more socially responsible way and increase profits.”
As a business, what can you do to ensure you are socially responsible and inclusive as you comply with the ADA? First, always ask the Deaf or hard of hearing individual what the best accommodations are.
Accommodations are not always a one-size-fits-all concept. What works for one person might not be ideal for the next. Accommodations — also known as auxiliary aids — can include sign language interpreters, captioning services, telephone amplifiers, assistive listening devices, or even transcripts. Some individuals may need only one auxiliary aid, while others may request several.
Another strategy is to always build the costs of accommodations, regardless of how low the costs are, into your annual budget. Ensure that you automatically provide text (transcripts and captions) for all video content, make all sound-based activities accessible, include Deaf and hard of hearing people in all disability initiatives, and identify other ways to be inclusive. By taking these proactive steps, costs likely will stay lower in the long run.
Finally, know your resources. Verify that the interpreting agencies you work with are known for providing high-quality, certified interpreters, and that you work with area organizations and agencies serving deaf or hard of hearing people to stay updated on current practices. And once again, ask individuals what their preferences and needs are.
By understanding the ADA, its intention and history, and its significance in the past three decades, businesses can make and have made life more equitable while also serving the communities that comprise our diverse society. The goal is to foster a world where we all, including individuals with disabilities, are fully contributing citizens.
One Morning in 2022
You wake up and realize you’re not feeling well. You immediately text your boss and then log into your health clinic website portal. You don’t see any available appointments, so you call the doctor’s office via video relay services to see if there are any walk-in slots available. The interpreter flawlessly signs on your smartphone as the receptionist says there’s an appointment at 11:00 a.m. The entire conversation takes four minutes.
You drive to the doctor’s office, expecting to use video remote interpreting. To your relief, there’s an onsite interpreter who works full-time at the clinic. The appointment goes smoothly, and you are prescribed antibiotics. Just as you arrive at the pharmacy, you receive a text saying your prescription is ready for pick-up. You use the drive-through and are home within a few minutes. Later, after a much-needed nap, you work a bit and email your boss the doctor’s note saying you can return in two days. Your boss tells you not to worry and to get well quickly. You eat some soup as you watch the live-captioned local news.
- Bureau of Internet Accessibility. (2021). How much do “reasonable accommodations” cost? Not much. https://www.boia.org/blog/how-much-do-reasonable-accommodations-cost-not-much
- Mayerson, A. (1992). The history of the Americans with Disabilities Act. https://dredf.org/about-us/publications/the-history-of-the-ada
- Stobierski, T. (2021, April 8). Types of corporate social responsibility to be aware of. Harvard Business School Online. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/types-of-corporate-social-responsibility
- U.S. Department of Justice. (2006). Tax incentives for businesses. https://www.ada.gov/taxincent.htm