The month of July is significant to the accessibility community for two reasons. First, July 4th is Independence Day in the U.S. Records of people with disabilities participating in the American struggle for independence are hard to come by. However, the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, have served as the disabled community’s battlecry for the past three centuries.
The 1800s – Early 1900s: Early Attempts at Organization
Among these sectors, disabled people were among the first to organize. In the early 1800s, societies for hearing- and sight-impaired individuals were established, followed by specialized schools for people with disabilities. With the emergence of Braille, blind people could discover what was happening around them.
Despite these early advancements, society was not yet ready to fully accept disabled people. Cities and states passed ordinances that kept those with disabilities from being seen in public, and as late as the 1930s, eugenic sterilization laws kept disabled individuals from having children.
The stigma was so prevalent that while the first disabled US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, led his country together through the horrors of the Great Depression and the Second World War, he avoided using his wheelchair in public.
1970s: Disability Rights As Civil Rights
For the decades following the war, the Civil Rights movement formed the basis for organizations seeking to uphold disabled people’s rights. These efforts bore fruit in 1973 when the Rehabilitation Act was passed.
This federal law sought to address discrimination against individuals with disabilities, specifically in the workplace. The Rehabilitation Act was followed by the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, which granted children with disabilities the right to public education.
Over the next few years, Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act became a controversial issue. There was some reluctance from the federal government, mainly because of the potential costs of enforcing the law.
The struggle reached its climax when disability rights protesters occupied the offices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) across the country. For 25 days, hundreds of people with different disabilities called on the HEW Secretary to sign the law, making it the longest and largest disability protest in history.
The 1990s: A New Age of Accessibility
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was an offshoot of these initial successes. In 1986, the National Council on Disability published a study titled Towards Independence that recommended adopting civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. Over the next four years, Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft a bill that would benefit the disabled.
The passage of the ADA was not without its challenges, though. The bill encountered opposition from business owners who contended that implementing it was costly, especially for small businesses that had to provide accommodations for disabled individuals.
In one last push that mirrored the fight for the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, disability rights advocates literally crawled up the steps of the US Capitol building.
These “Capitol Crawlers”, as the media dubbed them, were seen as the most crucial element that contributed to the bill being passed by Congress.
Shortly after the Capitol Crawl, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law, reassuring businesses and disability activists that implementing the law would not cost a lot and that the benefits would outweigh the risks.
The date the ADA was signed into law, July 26, 1990, was seen as the fall of the “shameful wall of exclusion” and ushered in an age of increased accessibility, especially for physical infrastructure.
2019: Web Accessibility is the Law of the Land
Nearly 30 years after the ADA became law, the Supreme Court found itself having to resolve a long-standing question: Does the ADA cover websites and other online properties?
In 2016, a Domino’s Pizza customer, Guillermo Robles, filed a case against the restaurant chain, saying that the lack of accessibility on the company’s website prevented him from purchasing food and violated the ADA.
After the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA covers both physical restaurants and websites or apps, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal filed by Domino’s in 2019.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal meant that a set of guidelines governing web accessibility had to be crafted to protect the right of everyone to experience the Internet at its fullest, regardless of their disability.
Finally, it convinced businesses that they needed to take web accessibility seriously – not just because making their websites accessible will allow them to reach underserved markets but also because web accessibility is a fundamental civil right.