The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a watershed in American disability history and public policy, with far-reaching effects on the status of Americans with disabilities. However, the ADA has fallen far short of the expectations for social transformation inspired by its enactment in 1990. This special issue commemorates the ADA's 25th anniversary with a variety of articles that look at how the ADA has affected the disability community and American society.

One fundamental question about the ADA is whether it has enhanced the economic status of Americans with disabilities. Several authors in this volume explore both the general economic condition of people with disabilities since enactment of the ADA and how the employment status of disabled Americans has changed since 1990. Michelle Maroto and David Pettinicchio examine trends in employment and earnings for Americans with disabilities within the context of overall U.S. stratification and find little improvement in economic outcomes for people with disabilities living in a post-ADA world. Similarly, Julia Rivera Drew analyzes whether the disadvantaged economic standing of disabled Americans has changed in the decades following the passage of the ADA. She finds that both material hardship and income poverty have remained high for working-age disabled people, although in varying ways among different subgroups. In her analysis, Sara Johnston provides an overview of ADA appellate court decisions related to disparate impact, i.e. discrimination that disadvantages people with disabilities that may be unintentional, and shows how judicial rulings have shaped the ADA's influence. The analysis of court cases by Jenny Dick-Mosher takes an intersectional approach to examine workplace discrimination through the lens of the relationships among disability, gender, and job type in cases of discrimination. Over the past few years, Robert Gould and Sarah Parker Harris have been undertaking a broad and ambitious review of published employment research on the ADA; and they report here on research concerning knowledge of the ADA, perceptions of employability, and workplace culture from the perspective of both employers and individuals protected by the law. Together, these articles reveal the complex challenges in reducing discrimination on the basis of disability and improving the disadvantaged economic position of Americans with disabilities, despite the presence of the ADA's clear mandate.

In addition to addressing discrimination in employment, the ADA also prohibits discrimination in public accommodations. Mary Ann Devine draws on focus groups she conducted concerned with access and reasonable accommodations in public park and recreation services; she finds that the ADA can be a useful tool in improving access, but does not in itself guarantee full access. Victoria Gillen addresses the "neuro-architecture" of public places and its impact on such factors as light and noise, identifying the persistence of design barriers to facility access for people who live with cognitive and neurological impairments. Heather Dillaway reports on her interviews with disabled women about their experiences seeking gynecological care; she finds that while some (but not all) physical barriers have been removed, the lack of awareness by health care providers constitutes a serious social barrier to accessible quality health care.

While focused on ending specific issues of discrimination, the ADA and the movement that created it also sought to redefine how disability was conceptualized, as a form of difference to be acknowledged rather than a deficit to be corrected. Two of the articles here address how disability is administratively constructed in higher education. Lauren Shallish uses results from her interviews on several college and university campuses to address how disability is typically excluded from considerations of diversity in higher education, resulting in a narrowly legal conception of disability that focuses on service provision rather than a construction that includes social, cultural, and political identity. Christy Oslund addresses the divide between campus disability service programs and the field of disability studies in higher education, despite their common concerns, calling for better communication and greater collaboration between these two bureaucratically distinct and often distant institutional spheres. Finally, Steve Brown offers a brief memoir of his own experiences as a scholar and activist in promoting disability identity, rights, culture, and pride, and shows how these concepts relate to the meaning of the ADA. He reminds us that disability is not a problem to be solved, but is rather a distinct identity to be celebrated, and that disability culture and disability rights are interdependent.

Each of the articles in this special issue creates a distinct and important window into the lives of Americans with disabilities, and the significance of the Americans with Disabilities Act in those lives. As we look ahead to the next phase in disability history and the struggle to overcome discriminatory barriers, the articles included in this volume demonstrate how the field of disability studies can offer insights into the barriers and opportunities found in that history and struggle.


  1. I would like to acknowledge Tammy Berberi and Mark Johnson for their early encouragement to pursue this special issue on the ADA; Kara Sutton for her continued assistance over the two years this project has taken; Michael Rembis, Interim Editor-in Chief of Disability Studies Quarterly for his support and superb editorial judgment; and Melanie Schlosser, DSQ Web Manager, for her guidance with the final publication of the issue.
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