The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most comprehensive piece of disability rights legislation in the United States. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, education, transportation, access to public spaces, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
The ADA grants civil rights protections to people with disabilities on par with those provided to individuals on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, religion, and age. The act has five titles that relate to distinct aspects of public life.
While the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required federally-funded programs, activities, and federal employment to be accessible to people with disabilities, it did not address private sector employment and access to public accommodations.
President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990. Efforts to pass the ADA were years in the making, involving tireless advocacy from people with disabilities and their allies.
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law in 2008 and became effective on January 1, 2009. The ADAAA broadens the definition of what constitutes a disability and applies to all titles of the ADA.
The ADAAA did not alter the ADA’s basic definition, but made it easier to determine whether a person seeking protection under the ADA has a qualified disability.
Under the ADA, a person is considered to have a disability if they have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of having such an impairment, or is perceived as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically list which impairments are considered disabilities.
The ADA is enforced through filing complaints when it is violated. There is no centralized office that handles ADA enforcement. Various federal (and occasionally state) agencies get involved depending on the nature of the violation.
Title I: Employment
Title I prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all aspects of employment. It requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified job applicants and employees with disabilities. Employers do not have to provide accommodations that pose “undue hardship” to the operations of the business; if an accommodation would be an undue hardship, the employer has to try to find another accommodation that would not pose this hardship.
Title I covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations. This title limits the questions employers can ask about applicants’ disabilities before making a job offer.
Until the passage of the ADAAA in 2008, many employers avoided following Title I regulations by claiming that an individual capable of working did not have a disability and was therefore not protected under the ADA. The ADAAA’s more expansive definition of disability provides greater protection for workers under Title I.
The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) enforces Title I and investigates complaints. Some state agencies investigate Title I complaints under an agreement with the EEOC.
Title II: State and local governments
Title II covers the programs, services, and activities of state and local governments. It also covers accessibility requirements for public transportation. Title II prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability for all state and local government activities, regardless of whether or not they receive federal financial assistance. Before the passage of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs that received federal financial assistance.
Title II also extends 504's accessibility requirements to all public entities that provide public transportation, regardless of whether or not they receive federal financial assistance. The title is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Title III: Public accommodations and commercial facilities
Private places of public accommodation are prevented from discriminating against individuals with disabilities under Title III. Most private businesses that serve the public are covered by this title.
‘Public accommodations’ include facilities that are privately owned, leased, or operated such as restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, stores, daycare centers, and more. Title III established the minimum standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction and requires public accommodations to remove architectural barriers where it is simple and inexpensive to do so.
Under Title III, businesses should make “reasonable modifications” in order to serve people with disabilities, including taking the necessary steps to effectively communicate with individuals with sensory disabilities. The U.S. Department of Justice enforces this title.
Title IV: Telecommunications
This title requires that telephone companies provide a nationwide system of telecommunication relay services (TRS) for people with hearing loss and speech disabilities. TRS enables people who are deaf or hard of hearing, deafblind, or have a speech disorder to communicate over the phone. These services can be accessed by dialing 7-1-1.
Title IV also requires any federally-funded public service announcement to include closed captioning. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforces this title.
Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions
This title includes provisions that apply across all other titles. Title V excludes certain conditions from the definition of disability protected against the ADA. Compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from ongoing illegal drug use are not covered by the ADA, among others.
Title V prohibits retaliation against people who exercise their rights under the ADA. Among other provisions, it directs some federal agencies to develop technical assistance materials to entities and individuals who have responsibilities under the ADA.