The Americans with Disabilities Act: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

For more than 30 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has ensured increased access to housing, telecommunications, education and much more for individuals with qualifying disabilities. The landmark civil rights legislation—which has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since its earliest days—prevents discrimination based on an array of conditions. The law represents an important turning point in the process of empowering individuals who have disabilities to more fully participate in day-to-day American life.

Where it’s Been

The original version of the ADA was signed into law in 1990 by then-President George W. Bush, but the story of the ADA begins several years earlier. In 1986, the National Council on Disability (and advisory and advocacy group for disabled Americans) recognized the need for the legislation and began to offer recommendations for the elements that ought to be included.

In the following years, the group drafted the language of the legislation, modeling its approach upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, gender or national origin.

Key Elements

According to the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, to enjoy protection under the ADA, “…one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Identified disabilities include deafness, blindness, mobility issues and a number of mental health conditions and even a positive diagnosis of HIV.

The law has four primary sections (often referred to as titles) that cover a variety of topics and circumstances, including employment, housing, public transportation and telecommunications—the last of which is most relevant to Relay services.

Contained within Title IV, these provisions of the ADA are intended to guarantee access to services designed to facilitate communication. Practically speaking, when the law was first enacted in 1990, it led to the installation of public TTY, TTD and Relay devices and services.

While calls placed within these services have largely shifted into private broadband, recent studies have estimated that Relay-mediated calls are utilized for millions of minutes every year.

These services have changed the lives of many Americans, including Lance Sigdestad, a community services specialist for Communication Services for the Deaf in South Dakota. Before Relay, Sigdestad couldn’t call his friends on the telephone. He recalls childhood memories of having to ask his mother to call a friend’s mom to arrange a play date. After Relay he could do that and more—even order pizza. Later, as he began his career, Relay empowered him to contact community partners, medical offices and agencies without having to arrive in person or mail a letter.


As our attitudes regarding disability evolved in America, and the ADA was tested in court over the subsequent years, our definitions of what constitutes a disability also shifted. What’s more, the definition of disability lawmakers used in crafting the original legislation was based on language drafted in 1973. In 2008, this prompted lawmakers to re-evaluate the ADA, which by then hadn’t been refreshed in nearly two decades.

The resulting ADA Amendments Act notably broadened not only the definition of what a disability is (thereby increasing the number of protected individuals under the law), but it also further defined the kinds of protections disabled individuals have when it comes to their employment opportunities.

Specifically, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, per the language and intent of the amended law, “the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA.”

Where it’s Going

The 21st Century is characterized, perhaps more than anything, with rapid advances in technology and telecommunications platforms—advances that will make necessary additional review and amendments when it comes to the ADA. Recent years have already demonstrated the need to adjust and apply the law to recognize the reality of near-universal mobile technology.

For example, as recently as late 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States let stand a lower court ruling that determined the ADA’s information accessibility provisions didn’t just apply to physical locations, but to an organization’s web and mobile app platforms as well.

While we can’t predict how the Court will rule in future cases, it is almost certain that as technology continues to evolve, so will our collective approach to making the basics of daily living accessible for everyone. And Relay SD will be there, every step of the way, advocating for the individuals who rely upon our services.

Visit www.relaysd for more information about the services and support we can provide.

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