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For millions of Americans, July 26,1990 was a landmark moment. When President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was a momentous step forward for civil rights – and one that has had profound effects on those citizens living with physical and mental disabilities. In the past 19 years, there has been a marked increase in social awareness and acceptance, but does the act achieve its aims today?

Clinton/Obama Mark Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

As written, the Act prohibits discrimination based on a disability – whether that impairment is physical or mental – that limits a major life activity. Reminiscent of earlier civil rights acts which offered legal protection for women and minorities, it required employers and government entities to provide them the rights that they had not been constitutionally given. And by signing it into law, President Bush publicly and politically proclaimed that disabled citizens deserve equal treatment – and that further measures would need to be undertaken to ensure that their rights were not trumped by fiscal concerns and small-mindedness.

In spite of great public support, the Act drew severe criticism prior to its enactment, as many feared it would open a flood gate of false claims that could potentially overwhelm or bankrupt the system – an argument that 19 years later has proven to be completely without basis. Touching on issues of accessibility, health care, education and employment, the Act was broad in its language – a necessity considering the wide range of citizens it was written to protect. Despite several later amendments, this broad language has opened a door for legal challenges, especially regarding the rights of those with learning disabilities.

While the original act does include those with mental disabilities, it has remained a topic of strong debate regarding the inclusion – or lack thereof – of learning disorders. Increased funding for the medical study of learning disorders – including ADHD, ADD, and dyslexia – and the resulting scientific evidence, has lent credence to a group of people who have struggled against the social misconceptions of these and associated disorders – namely the troubling popular myth that they are merely the result of poor parenting and an overloaded educational system.

Recognizing that the language was insufficient, legislators passed two additional acts – as amendments to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, both meant to address the failings of the educational system to properly support the needs of these students. Section 504 prohibits any federally-funded program from discriminating against children with disabilities while IDEA ensures that eligible students receive special education if needed, as well as any related services – such as tutoring or the opportunity to attend private school at no cost to the family if the public system cannot meet those needs.

For parents of an ADHD (or spectrum disorder) -diagnosed child, these amendments are a positive step, if not a perfect one. Many school districts, while well-intentioned, do not have the funding or the necessary training to support these students. By signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, President Bush voiced a support unseen by previous generations, one with a legacy that has withstood (much) criticism for the past 19 years. As our society’s awareness – and one would hope, compassion – grows, we can expect to see further amendments in the future – progression that will ensure that every citizen enjoys the same freedoms and the same opportunities as the next.