Former President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 33 years ago today. I was born nine years after the ADA was enacted. I attended local public schools, and participated in community activities throughout my childhood. Accessibility must go beyond being able to get into a building. Disabled Americans should be allowed the same opportunities as non-disabled Americans.
Many disabled Americans are still unable to marry. I am one of them. Same-sex marriage was made legal across the country in 2015. Without a doubt, this represented a significant advance for marriage equality. However, many disabled people who rely on programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are still unable to marry without their benefits being cut or taken away altogether.
Carrie Buck was a woman who was confined to a state mental facility because she was “feeble-minded.” Her condition had been passed down through three generations in her family. To improve the “health of the patient and the welfare of society,” a Virginia statute authorized residents of institutions to be forcibly sterilized.
On May 2, 1927, in an 8–1 decision, the Court ruled that Buck, her mother, and her daughter were “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” and that it was in the state’s interest to have her sterilized. Between 1927 and 1972, roughly 8,300 sterilizations were completed under state law.
Buck v. Bell’s logic has been significantly undermined by subsequent case law. There is also a growing recognition of the need for procedural safeguards to preserve the privacy rights that sterilization jeopardizes. However, 31 states still allow disabled women to be forcibly sterilized.
In June 1999, the Supreme Court handed down the historic Olmstead v. L.C. decision, which required all states to end the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities and ensure that they receive services in the most integrated environment possible. Two disabled women living in nursing homes in Georgia, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, were involved in this case. Curtis and Wilson asked state officials to allow them to live in the community in their own homes.
Susan Jamieson of Atlanta Legal Aid filed a lawsuit on their behalf when the state denied their request. The Supreme Court heard the case after several appeals. Services for people with disabilities must be offered “in the most integrated setting possible,” according to the Supreme Court ruling.
The participation of individuals with disabilities in community settings has significantly improved due to this decision. However, many Americans with disabilities still reside unnecessarily in nursing homes and institutions.
Disabled people frequently struggle to find work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21.3 percent of disabled persons were working last year, up from 19.1 percent in 2021. This is the highest reported percentage. Unfortunately, we are still more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. In fact, the unemployment rate for disabled people remains three times higher than that of non-disabled people.
Disabled people who are employed sometimes make less than minimum wage when working in sheltered workshops. Subminimum wage is perfectly legal because, under US labor law, certain people with disabilities have been allowed to be paid less than the minimum wage since 1938. During the Great Depression, this law was introduced to encourage more people to find work.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act was a landmark piece of legislation, we still have a long way to go in the fight for equality for disabled people in America. Future generations of disabled people deserve the opportunities previous generations have gone without.
Antonios, Nathalie, and Christina Raup. “Buck v. Bell (1927).” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, Arizona State University, 1 Jan. 2012, embryo.asu.edu/pages/buck-v-bell-1927.
Ceron, Ella. “Remote Work Helps Push Disabled Employment to a Record High of 21%. but the Gain Is Imperiled by Return to the Office Mandates.” Fortune,, 25 Feb. 2023, https://fortune.com/2023/02/24/remote-work-disabled-employment-record-high-remote-work-office-mandates/.
Carrazana, Chabeli, and Sara Luterman. “Many People with Disabilities Are Paid Just Pennies. Build Back Better Could Help End That.” The 19th, 13 Dec. 2021, https://19thnews.org/2021/12/subminimum-wage-people-with-disabilities/?amp.
“Forced Sterilization of Disabled People in the United States.” National Women’s Law Center, 24 Jan. 2022, nwlc.org/resource/forced-sterilization-of-disabled-people-in-the-united-states/.
Hotchkiss, Julie L. “A closer look at the employment impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Journal of Human Resources 39.4 (2004): 887-911.
Selyukh, Alina. “Workers with Disabilities Can Earn JUST $3.34 an HOUR. Agency Says Law Needs Change.” NPR, 17 Sept. 2020, http://www.npr.org/2020/09/17/912840482/u-s-agency-urges-end-to-below-minimum-wage-for-workers-with-disabilities.
Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 June 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html.
Star, Eryn. “Marriage Equality Is Still Not a Reality: Disabled People and the Right to Marry.” Advocacy Monitor, 14 Nov. 2019, advocacymonitor.com/marriage-equality-is-still-not-a-reality-disabled-people-and-the-right-to-marry/.
Shapiro, Joseph. “Lois Curtis, Who Won a Landmark Civil Rights Case for People with Disabilities, Died.” NPR, 5 Nov. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/11/05/1134426128/lois-curtis-who-won-a-landmark-civil-rights-case-for-people-with-disabilities-di.