Passed, but Not Enacted: The Law is Not the Power

Abstract painting showing bright colors weaving in a path.

There’s a lot to process on this, the 30-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I feel like I’m being asked to celebrate—with panels and special sections and look-backs-at-what-it-took to make this massive piece of civil rights legislation.

But, here I am, glum.

The famous ADA campaigner Justin Dart, Jr., recalled, when he sat at the signing, wearing his signature hat, seated next to the president, he reflected on what should have been a joyous day of pride:

“I went to the celebrations, but I did not feel euphoric. And that has been true ever since. I have just felt the heavy weight of responsibility to make this thing work.”1

Though a monumental feat that knit together different disability groups on various issues, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act has, in its thirty years of existence, led to a perception among nondisabled people that civil rights for disabled people have been enacted. Though it was passed, the Act’s enactment has often lagged: this includes in removing physical barriers and creating accessible space, adding accessibility features and pre-planning for access, better protecting for people in the workplace, and providing basic accessible facilities so a person can use a toilet in public buildings, etc. Any disabled person out in the world can see where things have fallen short of the sweeping vision of the ADA.

Disabled people are still stigmatized at work and school, in popular media, and within their own families. Even in new construction that should be made accessible, we regularly see disappointment, some more focal, like the $41.5 million Hunters Point library in Queens Borough or the Hudson Yards “Stairway to Nowhere,” both of which are filled with inaccessible stairs. Most homes also remain physically inaccessible, even with increased discussions about aging at home and visitability.

Disabled people have the ability to file lawsuits about inaccessibility and lack of accommodations, but cases are hard to win. And let’s face it, being able to sue is itself often a privilege of education and wealth. Even when disabled people do manage to file lawsuits, they are frequently lambasted in the media for their frivolity.

The ADA says that people cannot be discriminated against due to their disability on the job. Yet, levels of employment for disabled people haven’t gone up significantly since its passage, not to mention the use of subminimum wages for some disabled employees. I could use all my fingers and toes to count up just the people I casually know who have told me about discrimination they have faced at work and at school, not to mention the stigma and paternalism they face from coworkers and peers.

Passed, but not fully enacted.

The song “Hard Out There for a Gimp,” by the band Wheelchair Sports Camp, which is fronted by ADAPTer Kalyn Heffernan, includes the lyrics:

“There’s a Stairway to Heaven
Oh shit
So tell me
How the hell we gonna get in?”

These are words that ring true to me on the ADA’s 30-year anniversary.

Currently, in real time, we are watching higher education administrators show a fundamental misunderstanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though they’ve long had ADA Coordinators and Student Disability Services. Celebrating diversity by word rather than action, few people who have advanced far into university administration know what it’s like to go to the ADA office: they don’t know where is located on campus; they’ve never seen the documentation trail we need to satisfy the office; they don’t see the tough choices employees (and students) face as they consider whether documenting their disabilities will make them vulnerable to employers (and professors) and retaliation from peers and mentors for the accommodations they manage to get.

And administrators don’t seem to realize that their ADA offices weren’t built for a pandemic, for they continue to send nondisabled people with disabled family members and older folks to that office. The situation is worse outside the university too—as school districts talk K-12 education, as companies have patchworks of policies, as cities and towns struggle to enact that which was passed three decades ago.

We still need the Capitol Crawl, we still need protests and arrests on the Rotunda, we need Deaf President Now, we need Mad Activism and #CripTheVote

…We need to keep on with cross-disability, cross-issue disability solidarity,  and expand it now more than ever to policing and prison reform, ideas of interdependence in community (and not just independence), continued and revved up commitment to de-institutionalization (“Our Homes Not Nursing Homes”), and in commitments to listening and working among our communities, for we are vast and varied…. And honestly worth celebrating.

We need recognition of the ways in which disabled people of color take on leadership that often goes unrecognized, often carry these parts of the movement, have always carried them, but with less air time. I am grateful to Crip Camp Virtual and the Disability Visbility Project’s ADA30InColor Events for centering black and indigenous disability experience on this anniversary. Within the disability rights movement, we need reckoning so that the ADA is effective and meaningful beyond disabled people privileged enough to use it.

We also need to recognize how the ADA is being weaponized against voting rights in some communities—for instance, by closing down polling places—and being weaponized against public health as some people cry foul over new masking ordinances during covid-19.

The Work Continues

And that’s where I am, this year, on this 30th anniversary of the ADA: I don’t want to celebrate the law.

The law is not the power.

The law was passed in 1990, but we are still waiting on its full enactment.

The law can help us wield power sometimes, but the power has always been in the community, in how we work with, learn from, and trust each other. The power is in our cultures, in our relationships, in our art and in our pride and in our modes of relation…and in our truly righteous anger at how hard we are still working.

I am grateful for the organizers and tireless advocates who pushed for the ADA (and 504 before it)—for ADAPT, for DREDF, for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, for CILs, for the Black Panther Party—for accessible transport, for inclusive education, for protections at work. They worked so hard, putting together coalitions and trying not to discount segments of our community. They made our community, built it.

I’m grateful. But the work is not over.

The ADA is a failure if we think that the law is the power, but we are the power—disabled people living today—and we have to keep flexing the power and coalition and community and commitment our fore-crips gave us.

We have to stay committed, to stay disobedient when necessary, to stay militant when challenged, and to really listen to each other. It’s up to all of us to ensure that our movement moves from rights to justice and liberation, and to make sure we enact a community that engages with a wider range of experiences.

Ashley Shew is a cranky, multiply-disabled philosopher of technology who is having too many thoughts and feelings about the ADA and apologies in advance. She is also an Associate Professor at Virginia Tech. You can reach her on or on Twitter as @ashleyshoo

Header image via Freepik


  1. Quoted in Fred Pelka, What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

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