Americans with Disabilities Act: A Guide to the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is federal legislation enacted in 1990 that provides a broad range of protections for individuals with disabilities. To qualify for the protections of the ADA, the individual must have a psychological or physical disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities; be regarded as having this type of disability; or have a history of this type of disability. A major life activity can mean a variety of physical or psychological functions including, but not limited to: walking, eating, breathing, neurological functions, mental illness or impairment, hearing, seeing, communicating, reading, and mobility functions.

Other people that may fall within the protections of the ADA are those who are associated with individuals with disabilities, and people who encourage or promote reporting of disability discrimination. 

The ADA has five titles, which divide its protections among different areas of the law. The ADA titles include (I) employment, (II) public services, programs, and activities, (III) public accommodations, (IV) telecommunications, and (V) miscellaneous provisions.

ADA Title I - Employment

Title I of the ADA protects qualified individuals in the realm of employment. The ADA’s Title I protections are enforceable on any private business or employer with 15 or more employees; any federal sector, state, or local government employer; any labor organizations; and all employment agencies. Under Title I of the ADA, any of the above employers are prohibited from discriminating against an individual based on their disability when making decisions concerning hiring, firing, demotion, promotion, compensation, training, and more.

Title I requires the employer to make “reasonable accommodations” for any individual that qualifies under the ADA. A reasonable accommodation is one that will allow the individual to enjoy equal employment opportunities. This may include a modification to the individual's work area, such as a special chair for someone with mobility or bending problems, or a modification to the application process, such as a sign-language interpreter to a deaf individual.

Further, to be reasonable, the proposed accommodation must not put “undue hardship” on the business or employer. Whether the accommodation causes undue hardship will be largely based in fact and dependent on the circumstances of the business. Finally, the employer is not required to provide the accommodation unless the qualified individual requests it, nor is he or she required to provide personal items such as eyeglasses or inhalers. If there are several options that will adequately accommodate the individual, the employer is allowed to choose between them.

ADA Title II - Public Services, Programs, and Activities

Title II of the ADA applies exclusively to state and local government-provided services, programs and activities. Title II prohibits state and local governments of any size from excluding, or denying participation to, qualified individuals under the ADA from areas such as health care, social services, transportation, voting, town hall meetings, recreation, or education. This means that state and local governments are required to make reasonable accommodations, and changes to their policies or procedures in order to allow the qualified individual equal access to these benefits. This can mean relocating a voting booth from the third floor to the first floor or providing qualified individuals with auxiliary aids for equal access to public information about services or programs.

However, like under Title I, the accommodation must be reasonable, and not create undue hardship for the government. Hardship may be shown through financial or administrative burdens. Further, if the government can show that the service, program, or activity would be fundamentally altered as a result of the accommodation to the qualified individual, they may also be exempt from having to provide this accommodation.

ADA Title III - Public Accommodations

The ADA’s Title III prohibits any private establishments, including non-profit entities, that cater to the public from discriminating, excluding, or otherwise denying access to their business based on a qualified person’s disability. This includes many different types of businesses and services, such as restaurants, hotels, banks, homeless shelters, recreation facilities, theaters, day cares, and transportation. Private entities that provide certain types of testing or examinations are also subject to Title III of the ADA.

Businesses that offer public accommodations must make reasonable modifications in order to allow equal enjoyment for disabled individuals that qualify for protection under the ADA. These businesses must also promote integration of individuals with disabilities, unless equal opportunity for enjoyment of these public accommodations can only be achieved otherwise.

When constructing new facilities, Title III requires businesses that cater to the public to adhere to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines issued by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. While Title III doesn’t always require these businesses to modify already existing structures, if modification does not put undue hardship on the business, they may be required to do so. Other examples of reasonable accommodations or modifications include: providing transportation services that are accessible; maintaining any facilities, equipment, policies or procedures that allow access; and when removal of barriers to access is not readily obtainable, provide alternative.  

 ADA Title IV - Telecommunications

Title IV of the ADA amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require telecommunications companies to provide “relay services” for the hearing or speech-impaired. Relay services are transmission services that enable a hearing or speech-impaired person equal use and enjoyment of the telephone. Minimum standards for the quality of these relay services are also provided for in Title IV. Title IV also applies to television companies, and requires that all televisions over 13 inches must be made with closed caption capabilities.

ADA Title V - Miscellaneous Provisions

Title V provides for the areas that the other titles do not. For example, Title V gives individuals the right to sue state agencies for violation of the ADA, when the agency would otherwise be able to claim state immunity. Title V also protects plaintiffs that successfully sue liable entities for ADA violations. The business, employer or agency is prohibited from retaliating, harassing, or threatening the individual(s) that sued them or another entity successfully. This provision also protects any individuals who testified on the plaintiff’s behalf. Other provisions of Title V include the right to be awarded attorney’s fees and the right to use any other federal or state law under the ADA umbrella.

Getting Help

While the ADA provides broad protections for people who qualify under the statute, many state laws provide even more protections. If you believe that you have been discriminated against because of your disability, or if you are a business with questions about compliance with the ADA and its state counterparts, you should contact a local business, employment, or civil rights attorney for assistance.