What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Signed by: President George H. W. Bush
Signed on: July 26, 1990
Significance: Protects the civil rights of people with disabilities in many ways.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had strong support from both the Republican and Democratic parties in the US Congress. It passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 377–28 and in the Senate by 91–6.
When President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990, he explained how the ADA fits the goals of the United States, saying:
“Our success with this Act proves that we are keeping faith with the spirit of our courageous forefathers who wrote in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ These words have been our guide for more than two centuries as we’ve labored to form our more perfect union. But tragically for too many Americans, the blessings of liberty have been limited or even denied. … Legally it will provide our disabled community with a powerful expansion of protections and then basic civil rights. It will guarantee fair and just access to the fruits of American life which we all must be able to enjoy. … Together we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper.”
You can watch a C-Span video of the signing and the president’s speech.
The ADA, unlike some other disability-related laws, does not define disability based on a medical diagnosis. Instead, the ADA takes a functional approach. Here’s what it says:
The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual—
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such an individual;
- a record of such an impairment; or
- being regarded as having such an impairment.
People often refer to each part of the definition as a “prong.” Only one prong needs to be true for a person to have a disability under the ADA. Because it can be difficult to know exactly what is meant by the ADA’s definition of disability, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) has important clarifications. (For more, see Who Is Protected by the ADA?)
The Five Titles of the ADA
Let’s look more closely at each title.
Title I: Employment
Title I applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. It says that employers may not discriminate against job applicants or employees with disabilities in hiring, pay, promotion, leave, benefits, and all other employment activities. Title I also says that employers cannot ask about disability beyond voluntary self-identification forms. Plus, employers must provide reasonable accommodations, unless they create an undue financial, staffing, or resource hardship.
What, you may be wondering, is a reasonable accommodation? According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.” (For more, read About Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace.)
The EEOC enforces Title I, with occasional overlap from the US Department of Justice.
Title II: State and Local Government Services
Title II requires that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from programs, services, employment, and activities provided by state and local governments. Examples are public libraries and public schools. More examples are local and state courts, town halls, and city parks, as well as public streets and public sidewalks. It also applies to government contractors. However, it does not include the federal government, which is covered by the Rehabilitation Act.
A term that comes up a lot with Title II is public entity. Generally, a public entity is a state or local government, as well as any agency, office, or department run by a state or local government.
Title II has two parts, Part A and Part B. Part A covers public entities generally, and Part B covers public transportation.
Title II is meant to ensure equal opportunity, equal participation, and equal benefits for people with disabilities. Title II also forbids unnecessary inquiries into disability and surcharges associated with compliance with Title II. It also forbids eligibility criteria that screen out people with disabilities without legitimate safety reasons.
Under Title II, state and local governments must achieve program access through reasonable modification, unless doing so causes a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service or program or causes excessive financial and administrative burden. But Title II entities do not have to make each facility accessible as long as they offer equivalent access to each program.
In the context of the ADA, program access is a technical term. That’s because the technical assistance manual that’s provided by the Department of Justice to explain Title II of the ADA has specific—and lengthy—wording about what program access means. Generally, program access means that a person with a disability can participate in any program or service offered by a public entity, so long as there is some reasonable way to make it happen. One reasonable way would be to move a class, court proceeding, or other offering to an accessible location. (This is different from the type of access required by the ADA in Title III for businesses.)
Title II also mandates that policies, practices, and procedures must provide reasonable modifications to avoid discriminating against or excluding people with disabilities unless to do so would fundamentally alter their nature. This includes offering effective communication to people who have a hearing-, vision-, or speech-related disability, such as auxiliary aids and services.
An example of an auxiliary aid can be as simple as a pen and paper for handwritten notes. It can also include accessible materials, like providing a brochure in large-print, Braille, or digital format. Auxiliary services include sign language interpreters and note takers.
The Department of Justice enforces Titles II and III of the ADA. The US Department of Transportation is responsible for making the regulations concerning Title II, Part B.
Title III: Places of Public Accommodation
Title III covers places of public accommodation.
A place of public accommodation means, for example, a store that is open to the public. In fact, it means any place that is open to the public where commerce is carried out. Additional examples are banks, restaurants, theaters, and hotels. It also includes private schools and colleges, museums, shopping malls, bowling alleys, and sports arenas, as well as spas, hospitals, and zoos. Title III also covers private transportation (Title II covers public transportation).
Title III requires that places of public accommodation do not discriminate based on disability in providing goods and services. It also requires that they remove all structural and architectural barriers to accessibility if such removal is readily achievable, and that new construction and alterations of facilities must comply with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
Title III defines readily achievable as “easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense.” It is an ongoing obligation that must be continually re-evaluated to determine if barriers to access exist, and if feasible, to remove those barriers.
Like Title II, Title III forbids unnecessary inquiries into disability, surcharges associated with compliance with Title III, and eligibility criteria that screen out people with disabilities without legitimate safety reasons.
Title III also requires reasonable modifications to ensure access for people with disabilities, unless doing so causes a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service or program or causes excessive financial and administrative burden. Additionally, Title III requires that public accommodations provide auxiliary aids and services to assist with communications.
Because Title III covers private schools and universities, it includes rules for exams and courses: covered entities must offer exams and courses in a way that is accessible to individuals with disabilities or offer an accessible alternative. Also, exams should be administered so the results reflect an individual’s aptitude or achievement level, not the impairment.
The US Department of Justice enforces Titles II and III of the ADA.
Title IV: Telecommunications
Specifically addressing the needs of people with hearing and speech disabilities, Title IV requires telephone companies to establish telecommunications relay services (TRS). It also requires closed captioning of all federally funded public service announcements.
The Federal Communications Commission enforces Title IV.
Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions
Title V has various provisions that, for the most part, apply across the other titles. It protects against retaliation, intimidation, coercion, threats, or interference with people who seek to exercise their rights, or who encourage or aid others to do so. It also protects people without disabilities if they advocate for or testify on behalf of individuals with disabilities.
Additionally, Title V mandates the following miscellaneous provisions:
- The US Access Board, an independent federal agency that enforces the Architectural Barriers Act, must create accessibility standards.
- Attorney fees may be rewarded to prevailing parties in lawsuits related to the ADA.
- Federal agencies must provide technical assistance to those with rights or obligations under the ADA.
- Illegal drug use is not a disability.
- A state or local law that mandates equal or greater protection to individuals with disabilities is not superseded or limited by the ADA.
Understanding the ADA
The ADA, with its broad definition of disability and its five titles, mandates civil rights for people with disabilities in many areas. These areas include places of education and employment, state and local governments, transportation, shops, and services—including medical services—and the use of telephony and the Internet.
 US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (1995). Enforcement guidance: Preemployment disability-related questions and medical examinations; US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (2005). Enforcement guidance on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations of employees under the ADA.
 US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (2002). Enforcement guidance on reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the ADA.