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Harv. C.R.-C.L.L. Rev.


Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that our nation's civil rights laws were a "sparse and insufficient collection of statutes ... barely a naked framework."' On their faces, many federal civil rights statutes constitute little more than broad directives that "Thou shalt not discriminate." Broadly worded statements outlawing discrimination were the optimal approach to statutory draftsmanship in light of the controversial nature of the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s. The drafters of these statutes needed to craft language that would be palatable to a majority of the members of Congress while still having a meaningful impact in proscribing discriminatory actions. More detailed standards regarding the application of nondiscrimination principles were left to be developed by regulatory agencies and court decisions. On July 26, 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA") was signed into law.2 In his remarks before the more than 3000 people, predominantly individuals with disabilities, gathered on the South Lawn of the White House for the signing ceremony, President Bush described the Act as an "historic new civil rights Act . . . the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities." '3 The Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has described the Americans with Disabilities Act as "the most comprehensive civil rights measure in the past two and a half decades." '4 Senator Edward M. Kennedy has termed the legislation a "bill of rights' 5 and "an emancipation proclamation ' 6 for people with disabilities, 7 and declared that it is "difficult to believe that this Congress will enact a more far-reaching or more important bill." 8 The Americans with Disabilities Act, while certainly inspired by, and having many of the same ultimate goals of, prior civil rights legislation, has introduced some innovative approaches and may provide a somewhat different model for framing a nondiscrimination statute. The ADA constitutes a second-generation civil rights statute that goes beyond the "naked framework" of earlier statutes and adds much flesh and refinement to traditional nondiscrimination law. This Article analyzes the approach and content of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and its implications for future civil rights legislation. It describes the Act itself, the statutory framework within which it stands, and the body of disability rights case law and administrative regulations that will guide its interpretation. Such exposition of the ADA provides a basis for examining how the bill differs from other civil rights measures; how it advances or sets back the conceptualization, drafting, and implementation of civil rights statutes; and to what extent the ADA may serve as a model or bellwether for future civil rights legislation.