Disability Laws in America: What You Need to Know

Published June 17, 2022

Americans with disabilities account for 60 million people; however, our country hasn’t always looked out for this population. For centuries, people with disabilities fought to be treated as equals and to be included in society. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement in the 20th century that the first laws were passed providing protections for all Americans.

Today, there are multiple laws on the books to protect people with disabilities. These laws allow people to advocate for their needs while empowering legal experts to fight for what is right. Get to know a few key disability laws in America and what they cover.

1973 Rehabilitation Act

Many laws during the civil rights era paved the way for legislation to protect people with disabilities. As Americans fought to break down barriers between different races, disability advocates sought to be included in the drive for equality. One of the first acts to directly address discrimination against people with disabilities was the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. The main parts of this act include:

  • Section 501: discrimination against people with disabilities is prohibited by employers in the Federal government.
  • Section 503: discrimination against people with disabilities is prohibited by contractors and subcontractors working for the Federal government.
  • Section 504: civil rights are extended to people with disabilities. Children and adults with disabilities deserve equal access to education, employment, and other aspects of life. Schools need to provide reasonable accommodation to help learners.

This law was the culmination of years of advocacy by civil rights advocates. The rights of people with disabilities gained traction as the War in Vietnam raged on, and many servicemen returned home with disabilities – both physical and invisible in the form of PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Americans With Disabilities Act

While the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was a significant step toward fighting discrimination, many individuals and business owners needed concrete advice on how to accommodate people with disabilities. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. This is the most comprehensive act to date that provides significant details into accessibility for people with disabilities. The ADA covers access to public buildings, equal opportunities for employment, and equal access to government services.

The ADA continues to be updated today with new guidelines related to our ever-changing society.

Understanding Reasonable Accommodation

While the ADA is a reliable reference to create a welcoming environment for people with disabilities, there are still parts that are frequently contested. In particular, the concept of reasonable accommodation is often a source of lawsuits by employees who felt like they were not given a fair work environment.

Employers and organizations are required to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities unless it places an undue hardship on them. Oftentimes, people with disabilities who feel discriminated against will highlight how their accommodation request was reasonable, while the employer will try to prove that it placed undue hardship on the business.

Undue hardship is often based on the individual situation, which makes it hard to define and set a precedent. For example, an employee who is deaf might request an interpreter in the workplace. This wouldn’t be unreasonable for a corporation with a large budget, but it might not be feasible for a small business with just a few employees.

Most reasonable accommodation requisitions are either free or under $500. The majority are also one-time expenses (like the purchase of a screen reader) rather than monthly or annual expenses. This means that employers can agree to the accommodation most of the time.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Rehabilitation Act laid the groundwork for the use the technology that wasn’t even invented when the law was passed. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1998 and required government agencies to make their electronic content and information technology accessible. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) answer how this should be done. These guidelines were originally published in 1999 and the most current version was recommended for adoption by the US Access Board in 2018.

There are four key principles to keep in mind when evaluating online materials for accessibility. The content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. These guidelines go into greater detail into what these principles entail and how organizations can follow them.

Rules for Service Animals

Another key aspect of disability advocacy is the use of service animals. Service animals help people with disabilities navigate the world. They can guide people who are blind and calm a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The ADA frequently updates and revises guidelines to help people better understand what constitutes a service animal and where they can go. For example, individuals can only ask two questions about a service animal:

  • Is the service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

They cannot ask about the person’s disability or ask to see proof of a medical condition. Allergies or a fear of dogs are not considered reasonable excuses for denying entry to a service animal.

Service animals are limited to dogs and miniature horses. They must be under control and housebroken. They should be allowed anywhere (including food establishments) unless the service animal would compromise the environment – like a hospital operating room.

That said, staff members are not required to care for the service animal or supervise it during its time in a business or public building.

The Fair Housing Act

People with disabilities are protected from discrimination in housing, including most private housing and government or state housing situations. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on disability, and this law is backed by the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has several resources for preventing housing discrimination. One key aspect to review is the reasonable accommodation guidelines. Housing providers (including landlords and property managers) cannot refuse residency or place conditions on tenants because they require reasonable accommodations or modifications to live in a space. There are also specific guidelines for housing providers renting to people who use service animals.

State vs. Federal Guidelines

While the Rehabilitation Act and ADA are the foundation for many federal accessibility laws, many states work to provide greater protections for people with disabilities. They develop legislation that extends beyond what the federal government requires in order to better the lives of residents. It’s always a good starting place to review laws on the federal level, but then check to see whether your state has additional requirements as well.

At Accessibility.com, we have a state-by-state glossary so you can learn about your regional ADA guidelines as you operate in different parts of the country.

Know your accessibility laws

Having a clear understanding of accessibility protections in the United States can make you a better employer and a personal advocate for people with disabilities. Whether you know someone with a disability or want to create a more inclusive community, these rules can help you establish standards for accessibility.

To learn more, use the resources at Accessibility.com. We are here to help you provide equal access to the physical and digital worlds.

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