First Americans with Disabilities Act passage celebrations remembered 

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law in 1990, Minnesotans with disabilities and their allies joined into the national jubilee. Passage of the ADA also launched heightened opportunities to share information about disability rights and educate the greater community.  

Disability advocacy and service organizations throughout the state held special events. At some places, celebrations were modest, with small groups gathered for coffee and cake. 

The biggest ADA Minnesota party was in Minneapolis, where about 1,000 people gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center to mark the ADA’s passage. Those who helped get the law passed were feted, including U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. Durenberger told those present that passing the law was no small accomplishment, as it had only a one in 10 chance of passage. 

Lee Perish and Lucky, her hearing dog, were pictured at the event in a Star Tribune photo. She and others were pleased to have the ADA passed. 

“Similar to laws against discrimination on the basis of race or sex, the sweeping new law gives 43 million disabled Americans, including 500,000 Minnesotans, the same legal recourse if they believe they were discriminated against,” the Star Tribune article stated. 

“I think this bill sends a message that the government firmly backs the rights of the disabled people in this country,” said John Healy. In 1990 he was communications manager for the Minnesota Multiple Sclerosis Society. The society helped coordinate the event. 

“It’s the emancipation, in a way, for many disabled Americans,” Healy said. 

Also toasting the ADA’s signing was Kurt Strom. He was with what was then called the Minnesota State Council on Disability. He noted that many statewide disability organizations and individual Minnesotans played significant roles in getting the ADA passed. 

Strom told the Star Tribune that because Minnesotans were historically more enlightened about programs and services for people with disabilities. The state by 1990 had an active and involved disability community. 

Strom, who lived with cerebral palsy, also said that the ADA wouldn’t make a drastic difference in the lives of Minnesotans because the state’ human rights law already provided assistance. What it did was provide protections above and beyond what the state law provided. 

The August 1990 issue of Access Press had the ADA passage on page one. Its article included the list of UI.S. senators who voted against the bill. None were from Minnesota. The foes were against the legislation in large part due to worries about costs for businesses. 

“The bill is the most comprehensive antidiscrimination law to go into effect since the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” the article stated. The article also described the many changes that were to be made to buildings, transportation and transit, telecommunications, employment and public accommodations. 

In his column in the same issue, Editor Charlie Smith said, “It is time to celebrate!”  

But Smith also cautioned readers that even though changes would start soon, many changes would take a long time. 

Smith and others wished for change to happen more quickly. He also pointed out a hoped-for immediate effect. “(The ADA) will undoubtably start changing attitudes and that, I think, is one of the most important things that will happen. It will force consideration of individuals with disabilities as people who are contributing citizens of our society,” he said. 

Much focus in the weeks and months after the ADA was signed was on providing public education about the act. Winona State University in fall 1990 hosted David Schwartzkopf, the 1990 Disabled American of the Year and assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Division of Rehabilitation Services. He spoke about human rights and the ADA, in a talk sponsored by the Winona Human Rights commission. 

A check of newspapers around Minnesota showed that the ADA was a popular topic in 1990 for various groups. Chambers of commerce and business associations around the state heard presentations about the ADA and what it would mean. As noted in the Congressional votes, opponents cited business costs and implications in opposing the ADA. Having information to present about needed changes was meant to ease those worries. 

Other groups including faith-based institutions, student groups and community service organizations wanted more general information on what the ADA would mean. Schwartzkopf, who lived with cerebral palsy and macular degeneration, was especially in demand. 

Thirty-two years later, many of the people involved in that first ADA gala are no longer with us. But the ADA and its impacts continue. 

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at  www.mnddc.org