Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Overview

For a more indepth look into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), complete the free ADA Basic Building Blocks Course at  .

ADA Summary

  1. The ADA is a “thinking” person’s law.
  2. With little exception, the general nondiscrimination requirements of the ADA are the same regardless of title.
  3. The ADA is a civil rights law. Civil rights laws are different from other types of laws and regulations. Civil rights laws tend to be fact-specific, determined on a case-by-case basis, and are often more subjective than objective. Each part of the ADA must be applied on an individualized, fact-specific, case-by-case basis.
  4. The ADA, passed in 1990, was amended by Congress in 2008. 

The Five ADA Titles in Brief

Title I – Employment

Title I of the ADA covers employment. Private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor unions, and joint labor-management committees must comply with Title I. As of July 26, 1994, all employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local government employers, must comply with Title I. Employers include private sector and state and local government entities.

Title II – State and Local Government

Title II covers the programs and services operated by state and local governments; these are also known as public entities. Title II became effective on January 26, 1992 and is divided into two subtitles.

Subtitle A

Subtitle A of Title II is intended to protect qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in the services, programs, or activities of all state and local governments. It extends the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability established by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, to all activities of state and local governments, including those that do not receive Federal financial assistance. By law, the Department of Justice’s ADA Title II regulation adopts the general prohibitions of discrimination established under Section 504, and also incorporates specific prohibitions of discrimination from the ADA.

Subtitle B

Subtitle B of Title II is intended to clarify the requirements of Section 504 for public transportation entities that receive Federal financial assistance. It also extends coverage to all public entities that provide public transportation, whether or not they receive Federal financial assistance. It establishes detailed and complex standards for the operation of public transit systems, including commuter and intercity rail (AMTRAK). The Department of Transportation is responsible for the implementation of Subtitle B of Title II and has issued the regulations implementing that subtitle.

Title III – Public Accommodations

Title III covers public accommodations, commercial facilities, and examinations and courses related to licensing or certification. Title III also covers transportation provided to the public by private entities. Title III became effective on January 26, 1992.

Public accommodations are private entities that own, operate, or lease to places that provide goods and services to the public. Places of public accommodation include, but are not limited to, restaurants, hotels, theaters, convention centers, retail stores, shopping centers, dry cleaners, laundromats, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, hospitals, museums, libraries, parks, zoos, amusement parks, private schools, day care centers, health spas, and bowling alleys.

Title IV – Telecommunications

Title IV addresses telephone and television access for people with hearing and speech disabilities. Title IV is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Specifically required under Title IV are:

  • Closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements (PSAs).
  • As of July 26, 1993, the establishment by telephone companies of in-state and state-to-state telecommunications relay services (TRS) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Title V – Miscellaneous Provisions

Title V contains miscellaneous provisions. Unlike the provisions contained in other titles, which apply only to the titles in which they are located, the Title V provisions apply to all of the other titles as well. Employers, state and local government agencies, and public accommodations covered by other parts of the ADA must also comply with Title V. These provisions include:

  • Prohibition against retaliation and coercion.
  • Construction – However, nothing in the ADA is to be construed to apply to a lesser standard than the standards applied under Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, including the Section 504 regulations.
  • Does not preclude or require restrictions on smoking.
  • Does not change the status of insurance underwriting. However, an insurance plan may not refuse to insure or limit coverage or charge a higher amount to a person with a disability solely because of the disability UNLESS the refusal, limitation or difference in cost is based on sound actuarial principles.
  • Requires several federal agencies to develop technical assistance plans to assist covered entities to understand their ADA responsibilities.
  • Encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Sections of Title V that do not cross to all titles of the ADA include:

  • Requires a report about the effect that wilderness management has on the ability of individuals with disabilities to use and enjoy federal wilderness areas.
  • Covers Congress and Agencies of the Legislative Branch.

Federal agencies are responsible for enforcing the ADA:

  • U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) primarily for Title I – Employment.
  • U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) primarily for Title II – State and Local Governments and Title III – Public Accommodations.
  • Other Enforcing Agencies have further ADA compliance responsibilities, or are assigned Title II complaints, or provide technical assistance on ADA provisions, including:

    • Department of Agriculture: Farming and the raising of livestock, including extension services.
    • Department of Education: Education systems and institutions (other than health-related schools), and libraries.
    • Department of Health and Human Services: Schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, and other health-related schools; health care and social service providers and institutions, including “grass-roots” and community services organizations and programs; and preschool and daycare programs.
    • Department of Housing and Urban Development: State and local public housing, and housing assistance and referral.
    • Department of Interior: Lands and natural resources, including parks and recreation, water and waste management, environmental protection, energy, historic and cultural preservation, and museums.
    • Department of Labor: Labor and the work force.
    • Department of Transportation: Transportation, including highways, public transportation, traffic management (non-law enforcement), automobile licensing and inspection, and driver licensing.

    Other federal agencies also have ADA compliance responsibilities.

    • Federal Transit Administration, an office in the U.S. Department of Transportation, oversees the ADA’s paratransit requirement and compliance with accessibility standards for passenger rail and bus service.
    • Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [R75] is responsible for enforcing Title IV of the ADA, which deals with telecommunications relay services and closed-captioning of certain television broadcasts.

Definition of Disability

The ADA protects individuals with disabilities. In order to understand who is protected by the ADA, it is vital to know how the ADA determines disability.

Both the ADA and the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) use a three-part definition of disability. To be considered a person with a disability under the ADA, an individual must meet only one part of the definition (not all three parts).

Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such an impairment;
    – For example: a history of cancer, heart disease or mental illness
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.
    – For example: having high blood pressure or prominent facial scar

Equal Opportunity

People with disabilities must not be denied equal opportunity to participate and benefit from programs and services. This requirement parallels the requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Furthermore, people with disabilities must be afforded the opportunity to participate in programs, activities, goods, and services. The opportunity provided to people with disabilities must be equal to and as effective as the opportunity provided to othersThe ADA does not guarantee that the person with a disability achieve an identical result or level of achievements as people without disabilities. The ADA also permits the provision of additional services and benefits to people with disabilities that are not generally provided to people without disabilities. However, people with disabilities cannot be required to take advantage of those different services and benefits. Instead, if they want to do so, they must be allowed to participate in the services and benefits offered to the general public.


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