In the Public Interest

July 26 will mark the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, this landmark law prohibits discrimination against and provides civil rights protection to persons with disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunication services.

The emergence of both the disability rights and independent-living movements were critical to the development of the ADA. The disability rights movement emerged in tandem with the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States and was based upon the fundamental principles of autonomy and self-determination as well as a response to perceived injustices toward people with disabilities. The 1970s saw numerous grassroots movements and activism as people with disabilities became increasingly visible: They were closing down buildings, creating independent living centers and protesting on college campuses.

Over time, this civil rights movement has been aided by behavioral and social science research as well as by political actions. Psychological research helped to demonstrate the pervasive nature of stigma associated with disabilities and the adverse mental health effects of discrimination; it also supported arguments for the elimination of barriers to persons with disabilities so that they could share the same social and legal rights and responsibilities as nondisabled persons. Social psychology, especially the research and writings of Beatrice Wright, showed that a variety of psychological and sociological mechanisms--including stereotyping, stigmatization, psychological discomfort and paternalization--caused nondisabled individuals to hold prejudicial views against persons with disabil ities. Community psychology as well influenced the disability rights movement with its recognition of community participation and involvement, capacity building, empowerment and community control.

With this research in hand, APA became involved in the developmental processes leading to the passage of the ADA. APA provided oral and written testimonies on all aspects of the regulations, particularly those related to persons with mental disabilities. The association and its collaborators were successful in assuring final passage of the ADA without weakening amendments, such as those that would have excluded persons with mental and emotional disabilities from coverage and protection under the law.

Well before passage of ADA, APA recognized the psychological nature of discrimination against persons with disabilities and of the need for specific attention to be focused on this problem. In 1979, the association established a working group concerned with these issues: the Task Force on Psychology and the Handicapped, which later became the Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP). One of the first actions of this group was to develop the Guidelines on Physical and Social Accessibility, which APA's Council of Representatives adopted in 1979.

APA also maintains an Office on Disability Issues, which supports CDIP and seeks to raise awareness of disability issues within the association as well as promote and expand equal opportunities of persons with disabilities in all areas of psychology. The office serves as an important information and referral source for in-house staff, APA members and the general public, and develops and disseminates materials on professional and consumer issues. Some notable publications include "Enhancing Your Interactions with People with Disabilities" (1999), the Guidelines for APA Conference Speakers (reprinted in 2001) and the "Resource Guide for Psychology Graduate Students with Disabilities" (2004).

The office has also written numerous articles on the ADA for educators, practitioners and the public as well as given presentations and trainings. These include "The ADA and internships: Your responsibilities as internship and postdoctoral agency directors" (1999); "Interviewing applicants with disabilities for doctoral and postdoctoral internship positions" (2002); "Providing reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities in internship sites" (2002); "The Americans with Disabilities Act and internship programs" (1999); and "Moving beyond the ADA" (2002). For these and other resources, visit APA's public interest.

The ADA has afforded individuals with disabilities a much needed and long overdue opportunity to combat the historical discrimination against them. Nevertheless, there are continuing challenges to the ADA, particularly in the courts, which have reduced the scope and effectiveness of the act. Undeniably, the ADA has brought about positive changes, but there have also been setbacks. The reasons for the slowness of change and the setbacks are aptly captured by Thurgood Marshall, who in 1985 and prior to the ADA, wrote that, in regard to disabled Americans, "much has changed in recent years, but much remains the same; outdated statutes are still on the books, and irrational fears or ignorance, traceable to the prolonged social and cultural isolation of the [disabled], continue to stymie recognition of the dignity and individuality of [disabled] people."

It is for this reason that one can say that after 15 years of the ADA, the outcomes have been both impressive and disappointing.