Table of Contents
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. This includes jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies mainly to the public sector and exists separately from the Rehabilitation Act (1973) but is generally perceived as an expansion of Section 504 that protects a broader range of individuals with disabilities. The ADA affords similar protections to individuals with disabilities in the public sector. The ADA is divided into five titles (or sections) that relate to different areas of public life:
- Title I relates to Equal Employment Opportunity for people with disabilities
- Title II relates to Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services
- Title III relates to Public Accommodations: Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability by Public Accommodations and in Commercial Facilities
- Title IV provides equal access to Telecommunications and is regulated by the Federal Communication Commission.
- Title V includes Miscellaneous Provisions
The ADA’s definition of “disability” is a legal one rather than a medical one and is different from how disability is defined under some other laws, such as for Social Security Disability related benefits.
The ADA defines a person with a disability as:
- A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. It includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. “Record of” means that the person has a history of, or has been misclassified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, even though the person does not currently have a disability.
- Individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.
“Regarded as” means that the person either:
- Has an impairment that does not substantially limit a major life activity.
- Has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity only as a result of the attitudes of others toward them; or
- Does not have any impairment but is treated by an entity as having an impairment.
The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association as a person with a disability.
The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. Here is a short description of these Titles through which the ADA protects people with disabilities:
- Title I relates to Equal Employment Opportunity for people with disabilities. This title is designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees. A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable an applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. This portion of the law is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employers with 15 or more employees must comply with this law. The regulations for Title I define disability, establish guidelines for the reasonable accommodation process, address medical examinations and inquiries, and define “direct threat” when there is significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual employee with a disability or others.
- Title II relates to Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services. This title prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities, and services of public entities. It applies to all state and local governments, their departments and agencies, and any other instrumentalities or special purpose districts of state or local governments. It clarifies the requirements of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, for public transportation systems that receive federal financial assistance, and extends coverage to all public entities that provide public transportation, whether or not they receive federal financial assistance. It establishes detailed standards for the operation of public transit systems, including commuter and intercity rail (e.g., AMTRAK). This title outlines the administrative processes to be followed, including requirements for self-evaluation and planning; requirements for making reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discrimination; architectural barriers to be identified; and the need for effective communication with people with hearing, vision and speech disabilities. This title is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
- Title III relates to Public Accommodations and nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability by Public Accommodations and in Commercial Facilities. This title prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Examples of public accommodations include privately-owned, leased or operated facilities like hotels, restaurants, retail merchants, doctor’s offices, golf courses, private schools, day care centers, health clubs, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on. This title sets the minimum standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction of facilities. It also requires public accommodations to remove barriers in existing buildings where it is easy to do so without much difficulty or expense. This title directs businesses to make "reasonable modifications" to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities. It also requires that they take steps necessary to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities. This title is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
- Title IV provides equal access to Telecommunications. This title requires telephone and Internet companies to provide a nationwide system of interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services that allows individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone. This title also requires closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements. This title is regulated and enforced by the Federal Communication Commission.
- Title V includes Miscellaneous Provisions and contains a variety of provisions relating to the ADA as a whole. It includes its relationship to other laws, state immunity, its impact on insurance providers and benefits, prohibition against retaliation and coercion, illegal use of drugs, and attorney’s fees. This title also provides a list of certain conditions that are not to be considered as disabilities.
Currently, approximately one billion individuals around the world are classified as having a disability. Many people with disabilities experience a range of barriers to education, health care, employment and other basic services. Persons with disabilities are often subjected to violence and discrimination and are also often deprived of their right to education and employment, the right to live independently. Many are also locked up in institutions, shackled, or cycled through the criminal justice system.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, the history of the ADA is much older than that. This story “began a long time ago in cities and towns throughout the United States when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children. It began with the establishment of local groups to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. It began with the establishment of the independent living movement which challenged the notion that people with disabilities needed to be institutionalized, and which fought for and provided services for people with disabilities to live in the community.” (Mayerson 1992) Along with many others, Ron Mace’s pioneering work in accessible design was instrumental in the passage of national legislation prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, and The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The act was amended in 2008 (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA)), signed into law, and became effective on January 1, 2009. The ADAAA made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability.” The changes in the definition of disability in the ADAAA apply to all titles of the ADA.
Both public and private colleges and universities must provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Title II of the ADA covers publicly funded universities, community colleges and vocational schools. Title III of the ADA covers privately funded schools. All public or private schools that receive federal funding are required under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to make their programs accessible to students with disabilities.
All the programs of postsecondary institutions, including extracurricular activities, must be accessible to students with disabilities. The schools can do this in several ways:
- by providing architectural access to buildings, including residential facilities;
- by providing aids and services necessary for effective communication, like sign language interpreters, Braille or electronic formats and assistive listening devices;
- and by modifying policies, practices and procedures, such as testing accommodations and access to school facilities for service animals.
Accommodations and program modifications should be individually designed to meet the needs of the student with a disability. Accommodations and modifications of policies and practices are not required when it would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity or give rise to an undue financial or administrative burden.
Postsecondary institutions often have an office that coordinates accommodations for students with disabilities. The student should notify the appropriate institutional office well in advance of the needed modification or accommodation. Students with disability can refer to the following sites for knowing their rights and responsibilities and for auxiliary aids and services.
- Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities
- Auxiliary Aids and Services for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities
Auxiliary aids and services are required by the ADA to ensure effective communication with individuals with hearing and vision impairments.
Appropriate auxiliary aids and services for individuals with hearing loss:
- qualified interpreters on-site or through video remote interpreting (VRI) services.
- note takers.
- real-time computer-aided transcription services.
- written materials; exchange of written notes.
- telephone handset amplifiers.
- assistive listening devices.
- assistive listening systems.
- telephones compatible with hearing aids.
- closed caption decoders.
- open and closed captioning, including real-time captioning.
- voice, text, and video-based telecommunications products and systems, including text
telephones (TTYs), videophones, and captioned telephones, or equally effective telecommunications
- accessible electronic and information technology.
- or other effective methods of making aurally delivered information available to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Appropriate auxiliary aids and services for individuals who are blind or have low vision:
- qualified readers.
- taped texts.
- audio recordings.
- Brailed materials and displays.
- screen reader software.
- magnification software.
- optical readers.
- secondary auditory programs (SAP).
- large print materials.
- accessible electronic and information technology.
- or other effective methods of making visually delivered materials available to individuals
who are blind or have low vision.
Mayerson, A. (1992). The history of the americans with disabilities act: A movement perspective. Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. https://dredf.org/about-us/publications/the-history-of-the-ada/
ADA National Network. (April 2021). What is the americans with disabilities act? ADA. https://adata.org/learn-about-ada
University of Wisconsin Extended Campus. (2019). ADA compliance. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin. https://ce.uwex.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ADA.pdf
ADA National Network. (April 2021). ADA frequently asked questions knowledge base. ADA. https://adata.org/faq-page