How American Disability Rights Are Not Enforced

by James Delano

What Disability Rights Laws Exist? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary law safeguarding the rights of disabled Americans. It was passed on July 26th, 1990, with updates later passed in 2008. The ADA was the largest law related to rights for people with disabilities in the United States when it was passed and remains so today. 

The ADA recognizes three major areas it applies to, covered in Titles I, II, and III. 

Title I was written about employment. It ensures equal access to employment for people with disabilities. It forbids discrimination towards employees with disabilities based on their disability and requires reasonable accommodations be made for them. Title II covers public services and buildings, such as libraries, public colleges and universities, courthouses, and benefits programs. Title II creates stricter standards for publicly funded agencies and programs than Title III does for private organizations. Both Title II and Title III require reasonable accommodations be made for the disabled individual requesting the accommodation without the infliction of undue hardship. 

Title III covers private corporations and “public accommodations,” which include hotels, restaurants, stores, private schools or daycares, parks, and others. 

Prior to the passage of the ADA, legislation designed to improve the rights of people with disabilities was sparse. The first major piece of legislation passed was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 was signed in 1977, years after the original Rehabilitation Act, due to the 504 sit-ins occurring at the time. The first version of IDEA, which protects children with disabilities, became law in 1975. The Fair Housing Act was only expanded to people with disabilities in 1988.

Dozens of protestors celebrate in San Francisco after Section 504 was passed. Source: Yahoo Images
Dozens of protestors celebrate in San Francisco after Section 504 was passed. Source: Yahoo Images

The ADA is primarily enforced by complaint. A person with a disability is required to submit a formal complaint to the Office of Civil Rights or to the Department of Justice. They are then required to go through the process of creating a mediation agreement to ensure future access for the complainant and for future people with disabilities. People with disabilities are discriminated against in almost all parts of life: employment, marriage, and voting. 

For example, in 2016, Jefferson County was forced to alter its polling locations due to violations of the ADA in numerous polling stations. Until 2010, UAB was under a similar resolution about buildings on campus; many buildings built and renovated after 1992, when architectural requirements began being enforced, were non-compliant with the ADA. Both complaints were filed by people with disabilities after their rights were violated. 

People with disabilities also largely lack marriage equality in the United States. Married individuals almost always lose their benefits after marriage, including Social Security payments, healthcare, and other necessities. Often, people with disabilities would be forced to give up the things that make them able to survive – health insurance, home healthcare, and other benefits – in order to gain the legal protection and social benefits of marriage.  

The ADA is the main legal source for most rights for people with disabilities in the United States. If the ADA goes unenforced, people with disabilities are left behind. That is why its enforcement is so important: without the ADA, most people with disability lack the ability to utilize their rights, and without that ability, those rights may as well not exist.

American Disability Rights in Modern Institutions for People with Disabilities 

Olmstead v. L.C. (1999) was a Supreme Court decision decided based on the text of the ADA. It created requirements in many cases for community-based services over widespread institutionalization. The goal of the decision was to reduce the number of people with disabilities who lived in institutions.

In 1967, 400,000 Americans resided in these institutions, amounting to about 0.2% of the total U.S. population. By 2012, that number had risen to about 1,900,000 Americans with disabilities living in institutions, or just over 0.6% of the total U.S. population. Is this an example of deinstitutionalization?

A middle-aged man stands inside a room at a group home in front of a bed. Source: Yahoo Images
A middle-aged man stands inside a room at a group home in front of a bed. Source: Yahoo Images

The ADA applies to group homes and smaller forms of institutions, but abuse is still rampant in those locations. In 2021 in a group home in Eight Mile, a resident was severely beaten, allegedly by an employee of the group home he was living at. A year later, at a group home in Chickasaw, two group home employees were arrested for pouring boiling water on a resident of the home who had physical and intellectual disabilities. In 2022 a man with an alleged history of domestic abuse was employed at a group home in Mobile County, where video footage shows him using a belt to assault a resident with severe disabilities. These cases of abuse in institutions happen regularly, despite Alabama’s rate of institutionalization of people with disabilities being lower than the national average and us being a smaller state than many others.

Larger states and the country as a whole are not immune to this problem. A study conducted in 2000 found that “Children with disabilities are 3.4 times more likely to be maltreated than nondisabled peers.” Between 2004 and 2010, over 6% of the deaths of people with developmental disabilities were caused by neglect and abuse. At the state level, numerous New Jersey group homes were forced to close in 2022 due to unreported abuse. 

American Disability Rights in Outside Institutions for People with Disabilities 

Discrimination against people with disabilities is not exclusive to group homes and locations specific to people with disabilities. In Alabama alone, since 2013, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (DOEOCR) recorded 74 resolved civil rights complaints in Alabama. The DOEOCR covers all areas under the Department of Education (DOE), including universities, K-12 schools, public libraries, and other groups funded by the DOE, and has recorded 74 resolved ADA-related complaints in Alabama since 2013. Those complaints have been filed against institutions including community colleges, four-year universities, including UAB, and K-12 school districts, including Birmingham City Schools twice, the Jefferson County school district once, and multiple other Jefferson County school districts. 

Outside of areas of education, the Department of Justice has filed 114 cases related to the ADA and other disability legislation since 2021. Two of those cases occurred in Alabama. One agreement involved Medicaid discrimination; the other was based on employment discrimination by the Alabama Department of Transportation. Prior to 2021, the Department of Justice filed numerous other cases regarding the ADA. Many cases involved people with HIV/AIDS, who are classified as disabled under the ADA. Others were over Olmstead. As I discussed above, Olmstead was intended to aid in the national deinstitutionalization effort. To that effect, the Department of Justice has filed many cases since Olmstead was decided regarding its enforcement. 

Medicaid is not immune to these problems either. Medicaid provides health insurance to low-income individuals and people with disabilities, many of the latter also being low-income. Last year, the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP) filed a complaint against the Alabama Department of Senior Services (ADSS) alleging that there are barriers to accessing services provided by programs under the Alabama Medicaid Agency. According to ADAP, in the time they took to process the complaint in question, two individuals on the Medicaid programs in question died due to these failures. These Home & Community Based Services (HCBS) spent $132,000,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, and Alabama Medicaid as a whole received $5.6 billion in federal funding the same year, about $4700 in federal funds for each Alabamian who was eligible for Medicaid at the time. 

What is Changing? 

There are currently changes being made to many of the systems I discussed in this post. The aforementioned ADAP complaint regarding Medicaid is currently unresolved, and the Colby Act, which my colleague Lexie Woolums discussed at length in a recent blog post, was recently passed into law. Just a few months ago, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed changes to regulations around the Americans with Disabilities Act to clarify those that already exist. Those changes include clearer standards for health insurance coverage of medical equipment and clarify childcare requirements, both of which are things that many Americans have difficulty affording.