30 Years of the ADA and Its Global Impact

A crowd of people riding wheelchairs and carrying signs march through a tree and building lined street.
International visitors from Pakistan and Japan participate in an ADA celebration in Washington, DC.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, MIUSA CEO and Co-Founder Susan Sygall reflects on what makes the ADA unique and its influence on disability movements globally.

I'm a newly disabled woman with no role models, no sisters, no information – and no way of knowing that the world is about to change.

That thousands of people with disabilities all over the world are going to disrupt the status quo.

They are going to yell and scream and protest and pass laws and protest again, and file lawsuits and get into leadership positions and start new organizations run by and for people with disabilities.

These were the thoughts going through my head decades ago, years before a landmark legislation called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed the lives of millions of people in the United States, including mine. I remember my life before the ADA, when I could not get a job, get on the bus, get into a restaurant, or have equal access to any university.

Over the years as a disability activist, I have observed that the success of the ADA is thanks in part to key principles of the law:

  • It has “teeth,” or consequences for those who break the law.
  • It has timelines by which remedies must be in place.
  • It has accessibility standards that guide the design of places, communications, services, and programs.
  • It emphasizes the importance of training people with disabilities so that they understand the law and can be sure that it is effectively enforced.

These principles do not belong exclusively to the people of the United States. In the 30 years since its passage, the lives of people outside of the United States have been impacted by the ADA as well.  That’s what excites me about the ADA: It offers a blueprint that people with disabilities and allies around the world can adapt and build on, to forge their own paths, their own policies, their own laws, their own procedures that work best in their country.

The ADA has impacted thousands of visitors from over 140 countries, who have traveled to the U.S. on MIUSA exchange programs, where they experience accessible transportation, inclusive classrooms, adaptive recreation, and more. MIUSA’s training curriculum offers a crash course on the U.S. disability rights movement, firsthand experience with how the ADA has forged new paths of justice and opportunity for people with disabilities, and opportunities to learn from both the achievements and mistakes of U.S. disability activists, and from each other.  

I’m encouraged to see other international exchange programs, such as those sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, doing their part to increase disability representation, not only in terms of recruiting participants with disabilities but by weaving disability rights and history into general programming so that disabled AND non-disabled delegates can learn about this significant piece of U.S. history. For example, international visitors and students coming to the U.S. to gain perspectives on civil society, education, architecture, sports and recreation, or youth leadership might hear from leaders with disabilities, or they might tour a building designed for universal disability access.

Of course the ADA is not perfect, nor is the justice system in the United States always just. We acknowledge that there is much injustice in the United States as evidenced from the recent protests as well as a long history of discrimination. We must be honest about seeing both accomplishments in the U.S. and the devastating discrimination that has faced disabled people, people of color, and other people who have been marginalized throughout our history.

July 26, 1990 marks a historic moment, when people with diverse types of disabilities united under one movement, disrupting the status quo in a peaceful way to bring about change. And THAT is cause for celebration!

I want to thank all the millions of people with disabilities and allies who worked so hard to make the ADA possible, as well as the millions of people with disabilities and allies throughout the world who will continue to work and struggle to enforce laws and policies that create “a world as it should be.”

Happy birthday ADA!

Susan Sygall

CEO, Mobility International USA


Celebrate the ADA with MIUSA

  • International exchange organizations, international exchange alumni and others are invited to participate in the Joining Hands Virtual Symposium in August 2020 to share practices for disability access and leadership in international exchange.
  • Watch the Story of WILD video for perspectives from disabled women activists from around the world, who are often overlooked in the disability rights movement.
  • International development and humanitarian organizations are invited to join MIUSA’s Excellence in Development and Disability Inclusion (EDDI) network for technical assistance and referrals for making your projects more disability-inclusive.
  • Explore our sister website, Global Disability RightsNow! for resources on policy and legislation as well as the principles behind the ADA. The site also provides resources specific to Mexico, Armenia, Vietnam, Peru, Guatemala and Kenya.
  • Learn more about our recent work with disability rights advocates in Armenia who are establishing independent living centers in their country.

Further Reading about the ADA



Susan Sygall