Beyond Letters: The Spirit and Inspiration of the ADA

Collage of workplace characters performing various tasks, one with glasses working on the computer

In the first blog in my Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) series, I introduced readers to the story of Chelsie Reid, a student in early childhood education who was having a hard time getting the practical child care hours required for her program.  In a purely literal sense, the Americans with Disabilities Act has nothing to do with her experience: she was asking- and being denied by – “friends,” and federal law doesn’t govern how friends treat one another. None of the ADA’s five titles (sections) reach into the murky milieu of informal, private relationships.

The Implications of the ADA

Rather, the five sections are all concerned with specific areas of public life.  Thus, Title I governs companies of 15 or more employees, ensuring equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities; Title II prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by state and municipal government services (including entities licensed to provide public transportation); Title III extends a similar prohibition to public accommodations and commercial facilities (e.g., hotels, restaurants, hospitals, or other premises open to and serving the general public); Title IV mandates accessibility in phone-and-internet-based telecommunications networks for the Deaf, hard-of-hearing , and speech-disabled, as well as closed-captioning for all federally-funded public service announcements; and Title V is the “catchall,” addressing any leftover issues from the first four Titles.

The Expressive Power of the ADA

If we move beyond the letter of the law, however, into the realm of what Sharon Hoffman terms “the expressive power of the ADA,”- that is, the expectations it sets and behaviors it encourages—the relevance of Chelsie’s story becomes clearer. At the July 26th signing of the ADA, George H.W. Bush senior took pains to situate the ADA as a necessary and timely evolution in America’s historically imperfect— (but always improving)— civil rights tradition; he invoked American unity and exceptionalism against the “shameful wall of exclusion,” that kept people with disabilities from full and equal participation in society at large. He called for unity of purpose in removing “physical barriers we have created” and “social barriers we have accepted.” 

These sweeping invocations, along with the reports of celebration we have from that day and the words we have from contemporary disability rights activists about what they hoped the ADA would do, suggest a law whose hopeful spirit, at least, supports Chelsie’s plea for respect and equality even in the informal realm.

Takeaway: Embracing the Expressive Power of the ADA

Every law has two dimensions: its literal, “what is written” dimension, and its expressive dimension which, as we’ve seen, has to do with the behavior it encourages and expectations it sets.

Civil Rights laws such as the ADA have their greatest impact and come closest to fulfilling their potential when people move beyond the literal to embrace the expressive.

Thus, the ADA is more than the sum of its prohibitions and mandates; as surely as the Declaration of Independence, it is an aspirational statement about the kind of society we would like to have and a pushback against the types of behavior that cannot be condoned if we’re to have it.

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