Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law that seeks to eliminate discrimination against people based on their disabilities in employment, state and local government services, privately operated public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, stores, museums, etc.), transportation, and telecommunications. Great strides have been made in our society, but discrimination still exists. Attitudes, poor enforcement of the law, underfunded programs, and fiscal difficulties in state and local government budgets all contribute to the on-going need to be vigilant advocates for full inclusion and equality.

A person with a disability (as defined by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008) is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (for example sleeping, walking or breathing), or major bodily functions (for example respiratory, neurological or immune function), or a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is regarded as having such an impairment.

The ADA is divided into titles, or sections, that cover discrimination in employment, public services, private entities, transportation, and telecommunications.

ADA Title I: Employment

Title I of the ADA applies to public and private employers with 15 of more employees. It prohibits discrimination based on disability in recruiting, hiring, promotion, training, pay, and other aspects of employment. For example, employers may not ask about a person’s disability before hiring him/her (except federal contractors who must invite applicants and employees to voluntarily self-identify as an individual with a disability.) Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are qualified for the job (accessible office equipment, for example).

For more information see:

ADA Title II: State and Local Government Services

Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability against any qualified individual in all services, programs, and activities provided by state and local governments. Individuals with disabilities must be provided an “equally effective opportunity” to participate in or benefit from a public entity's aids, benefits, and services. This means that any program or service run by a state or local government must be accessible to people with disabilities as long as they are eligible for the program or service. Access includes physical access (ramps, accessible bathrooms, accessible parking spaces) and programmatic access (materials in Braille, interpreters). Programs and services must be provided in the most integrated setting appropriate so that people with disabilities can participate and interact with people who do not have disabilities. Transportation falls under title II (as well as title III) of the ADA since state and local governments typically operate transportation systems, including fixed route buses, light and heavy rail systems, paratransit, and over-the-road buses.

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ADA Title III: Public Accommodations 

Title III of the ADA covers public accommodations which are private entities that own, operate, lease, or leases to a place of public accommodation. Examples of public accommodations include restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, stores, movie theaters, airports, gas stations, libraries, parks, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, day care centers, and gyms. Public accommodations must make “reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures that deny equal access to individuals with disabilities, unless a fundamental alteration would result in the nature of the goods and services provided.” This means that people with disabilities have the right to go to the movies, go shopping, pump gas into their cars, and stay in a hotel just as people without disabilities do. In some cases, private entities might also need to furnish auxiliary aids (such as interpreters and documents in Braille) “when necessary to ensure effective communication, unless an undue burden or fundamental alteration would result”. Private entities must also make sure that any new construction or remodeled buildings are accessible to people with disabilities.

For more information, see:

ADA Title IV: Telecommunications

Title IV of the ADA covers telecommunications relay services for hearing-impaired and speech-impaired individuals. This title requires telecommunication companies offering telephone service to the general public to have telephone relay service for individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTY’s) or similar devices. It also requires closed captioning of any public service announcement paid for with Federal funds.

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Since the ADA was enacted in 1990 it has been further strengthened by several regulations and guidelines as well as a Supreme Court decision and a federal law described below.

The Olmstead Supreme Court Decision

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in its Olmstead v. L.C. decision that unnecessary segregation of individuals with disabilities in institutions is a form of discrimination. The court clearly stated that Title II of the ADA required states to provide services and supports to people with disabilities in “the most integrated setting appropriate.” It prohibited states from making funding decisions based on their desire to keep their institutions full. In Olmstead the Court said that people who are living in institutions who could live in more integrated settings must be provided with that choice. The US Department of Justice enforces the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision. To learn more about Olmstead, see:

ADA Amendments Act

The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was enacted in 2008 to correct the narrowing of the definition of disability by several federal court decisions. For example, a court decided that if a person with epilepsy took medications and successfully controlled his seizures, he was not considered a person with a disability and could not claim employment discrimination under the ADA. This created a “Catch-22” situation - the more successful people were in coping with their disability, the more likely it was that the court would find them not disabled and not covered by the ADA. The ADAAA clarified that the definition of disability should be interpreted broadly and that the focus should be on whether discrimination has occurred. The regulations that implement the ADA list several impairments that would almost always be considered disabilities, such as deafness, blindness, epilepsy, diabetes, autism, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disability. It also states that mitigating measures (something that helps someone cope with or manage their disability, such as medication or assistive technology) should be ignored when deciding if someone has a disability.

Our Legislative Agenda for Civil Rights

Civil Rights Agenda for the 112th Congress (2011-2012)

Committees of Jurisdiction

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) 

Senate Committee on the Judiciary 

House Committee on Education and the Workforce

House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

Our ADA Regulatory Advocacy

Recent Comments to Federal Agencies

CCD Rights Task Force

The CCD Rights Task Force focuses on civil rights and protections for people with disabilities, and for enforcement of rights provisions by federal agencies. 

What is The CCD?

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) is a coalition of over 100 national disability organizations in which  The Arc has leadership positions.

Helpful Links