Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act

Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act

Atlas Assistance Dogs is proud to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On July 26th we celebrate this important civil rights law that works to ensure all people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

A Brief History of the ADA

While the ADA was signed into law on July 26th, 1990, the fight for disability rights began many years before. Thousands of disabled people and allies are to credit for the disability rights movement. These activists fought for years to challenge the barriers and exclusions that people with disabilities faced. For centuries, people with disabilities were to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Many were sent to institutions or worse, sterilized as part of a eugenics movement. 

Over the last few decades, the disability rights movement has protested in the streets, in federal buildings, and sought justice in courts and Congress.

Section 504

1973 marked an important shift in disability policy, with the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 was the first civil rights law to ban discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. These include federal agencies, schools, human service programs, and many hospitals. The passage of 504 was also historic in that it was the first time that disability was acknowledged as a minority group.

Unfortunately, section 504 was not actually enforced, but the disability rights movement kept growing and becoming increasingly visible. In 1977, activists all over the country mobilized andsat-in” at Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) buildings, with the longest sit-in lasting 28 days in San Francisco! Finally, on May 4th 1977, thanks to these sit-ins, as well as lawsuits and hearings, Section 504 regulations were issued.

a black and white image of disabled activists during the disability rights movement protesting in the street. One person holds up a sign reading "sign 504, we will wait no more"
504 Protests 1977


The road to the ADA still had many bumps and barriers to get over. Most of the 1980s were focused on protecting 504 and reinstating civil rights protections, which were being highly challenged by the Reagan administration. The fight was won, and section 504 remained. This was a major victory for the movement. Throughout the decade, many more battles were fought and won, including protections for people with AIDS, and the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a statute which funds special education programs. In 1988, the first version of the ADA was introduced to Congress. After much more awareness raising, lobbying efforts, hearings, and an exceptional Capitol Crawl, in which hundreds of demonstrators abandoned their wheelchairs and crutches and crawled up the steps of the Capitol, the ADA was signed into law by former president Bush on July 26th 1990.

a group of disabled activists climbing up the steps of the US capitol. Some on their hands and feet, others standing during the capitol crawl
Captitol Crawl 1990

The ADA and Service Dogs

It is thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act  that service dog handlers have the protections and access rights they do. The ADA defines a service dog  as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability”. 

It is important to note that the ADA protects the service dog team (i.e the disabled handler, or secondary handler and the service dog). The service dog alone does not have access rights.

Service dog handlers are permitted to enter any public facility and accommodation where the public is allowed, even if the business, building, facility etc. has a “no pets” policy in place. There are a few exceptions to this rule, including certain sterile areas of hospitals such as burn units or operating rooms, religious entities like churches, synagogues or mosques, and restaurant kitchens. 

a sign that says "notice service animals welcome" and has a black figure of a dog with a vest

Handler's Rights

The ADA gives guidance as to what service dog handlers can and cannot legally be asked. Public entities may ask only two questions to a person entering with a service dog:

  • Is this a service dog?
  • What task/job is the dog trained to perform?

They may not ask about the person’s disability, ask for proof of training or documentation stating that the dog is a service dog, or require the person to demonstrate the dog’s tasks.

Furthermore, service dog handlers are not to be charged additional fees or separated from other patrons. For example, a restaurant cannot assign a service dog handler to a specific area of the restaurant and a hotel cannot charge the handler with pet fees (though they may charge damage fees if the service dog has damaged the room).

Businesses Have Rights Too

With the increase in service dogs out in the world, and unfortunately, the increase of people passing their pets off as service dogs, we are seeing more incidents where “service dogs” are acting inappropriately in public. This has led to some very real issues both for disabled handlers and their well-trained service dogs, as well as for business owners who are unsure how to properly navigate these incidents.

Due to people bringing their untrained dog in public spaces, many service dog handlers are getting challenged and denied the access that the ADA specifically protects them from. While proper steps must be taken to ensure that people are not passing their pets off as service dogs, it is also important for business owners and public facilities to understand their own rights and know when they can legally ask a person to remove their dog from the premises.

A handler may be asked to remove their dog (even a legitimate service dog) if:

  • The dog is acting aggressively or creating a disturbance such as barking repeatedly 
  • The dog is not under control of the handler 
  • The dog is not housebroken

However, while they may ask to remove the dog, the public entity must still provide services to the person once the dog is removed.

Disability Rights of Today

Though the ADA was signed into law 31 years ago, the work is far from over for the disability community. Many barriers still exist and it is a continuous battle for the ADA and associated laws to be upheld. 

Today, disabled people fight for visibility and accessibility in all spaces: physical and virtual. For example, after a 2006 class action lawsuit against the Target Corporation in which the National Federation of the Blind claimed their website was not accessible, the court held that the ADA applies to websites that have a connection to a physical place. Accessibility on the web includes (but is not limited to) alt text on images and captioned video.

multiple icons depicting different disability types

The Modern Disability Community

The fight for disability visibility and rights has been long and on-going. Thousands of disabled activists and allies are to credit for the incredible progress that has occurred, both legally and culturally. And now, thousands more are to keep up the fight for disability rights.

More recently, the movement has spread online, and today’s activists help raise awareness through social media. In this way, a strong community of disabled people is building across the world. People are connecting in ways not possible before and many are finding comfort in knowing they are not alone. Furthermore, virtual activism has allowed many more disabled people to participate in the movement, as protests or in-person events are unfortunately still not accessible to all. 

Through online platforms, many disabled and chronically ill people are finding a voice and sharing their story. Disability is not to be hidden, shamed, or dismissed. Disability should be seen, fought for, and celebrated with pride. The ADA is a transformative piece of legislation that has been made possible thanks to so many people who have indeed fought for and celebrated disability. As we celebrate the 31 years of the ADA, we also celebrate each and every person who has and continues to bring change, raise awareness, and increase access for people with disabilities. 

colorful sillouhettes depicting different types of people with different types of disabilities

About Atlas Assistance Dogs

Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one. 

We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit or contact

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Author: Molly Neher

Molly is Atlas’ Director of Operations and Programs. She is passionate about disability rights and raising awareness about service dogs. Her service dog Reid has been her partner in crime for 7 life changing years.

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