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The Evolution of the Americans With Disabilities Act

The flexibility of the 1990 civil rights law allows it to evolve as disabilities such as long COVID-19 are recognized.

By Hannah Edelheit  |  June 20, 2024
Eve Hill
Tracy Brown-May Nevada

The Americans with Disabilities Act is about more than just creating accommodations for people with disabilities.

“One of the biggest things the ADA has done is let people with disabilities out,” disabilities rights lawyer Eve Hill says. “Out of their homes. Out of institutions. Out into the workplace.”

Hill joined Nevada Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May on NCSL’s “Our American States” podcast. Both say they have seen firsthand how the 1990 law has influenced people’s lives. Hill says she brings her sense of “righteous indignation” to her courtroom advocacy, and Brown May supports relevant bills and sits on Nevada’s Legislative Committee on Senior Citizens, Veterans and Adults With Special Needs.

The act’s general definition of “disability” is flexible, allowing its protections to evolve. With more disabilities, such as long COVID-19, being recognized, the ADA can accommodate and protect those affected.

“So, we don’t have to change the ADA in order to cover these things. They already fit within this very general definition that we have,” Hill says.

“About 25% of our population are people who identify as having a disability right. So why are we not hiring 25% of our working staff to be representative of that demographic?”

—Nevada Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May

Brown-May says she has seen people in her own community become more conscious of the ADA because of its application in their lives.

The ADA includes five sections, or “titles.” Title I covers employment; Title II is about state and local governments; Title III addresses public accommodations; Title IV covers telecommunications; and Title V deals with insurance issues and retaliation.

“We recognize that in order to incorporate people with disabilities, we have to change some things that we put in place assuming they wouldn’t be there,” Hill says.

There must be proper accommodations in places of employment and in public places. This can include things such as the use of closed captions and Braille writing so everyone can interact with the same information, Brown-May says.

“Making sure people with all types of disabilities have access to the same information is what we are trying to accomplish,” she says.

At the state level, Brown-May has tried to pass legislation that would encourage hiring of people with disabilities in Nevada’s state divisions.

“Our numbers now tell us that about 25% of our population are people who identify as having a disability right,” Brown-May says. “So why are we not hiring 25% of our working staff to be representative of that demographic?”

Another aspect is accessibility through technology. Brown-May has been broadcasting committee meetings online to ensure that all her constituents can access the information, she says.

Hill says that state legislators should look at their own laws to see “where they can fill gaps in the ADA.” For example, the act applies only if there are more than 15 employees at a small business.

Hill has noticed that employers have become more conscious about the ADA and its protections.

“(They are) aware that it requires them to reexamine their assumptions about disabilities and to look at and reexamine how their jobs can get done,” Hill says.

Brown-May has been building relationships with state and federal lawmakers to gain access “into good advocacy in public policy.” She has even tried to focus on making business cards more accessible. The print can be hard to read, and it was hard to put Braille on the cards, she says.

To get involved in these discussions, Brown-May recommends that legislators try to connect with their communities and engage with organizations that support people with disabilities, she says.

“But my most important thing is to know that even as a legislator, I don’t have the answer,” Brown-May says. “So let the community dictate what the right answer is for them.”

Hannah Edelheit is an intern in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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