ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Learn about your rights under the ADA. Ability Central explains the ADA’s anti-discrimination policies for people with disabilities, including access to employment, public services, transportation, communication, and retaliation protections.

By Ability Central

16 May, 2024

Two workers in coffee shop uniforms, an older white man wearing a black baseball cap and a young white woman with glasses, curly hair, and a wheelchair, work side-by-side filling coffee orders during the busy morning rush

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the same way that other laws protect people regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. This applies to employment, school, public services, places that are open to the public, and more. 

In this in-depth guide, Ability Central explains each facet of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We take you through what you need to know about your rights as a person with disabilities. We also provide resources on what to do if you or a loved one are discriminated against.   

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

In the United States, people with disabilities have the right to experience life in the same way as people without disabilities. Unfortunately, discrimination against people with disabilities is still common. 

Sometimes this is accidental, like when a business accidentally excludes wheelchair users because their entrance is only accessible via stairs. 

Other times, it’s highly intentional, offensive, and steeped in personal bias, like when an employer chooses not to hire someone with epilepsy because they don’t want to “deal with” the person’s seizures.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, better known as the ADA, prevents this kind of discrimination and ensures people with disabilities have the same opportunities, rights, and protections as everyone else. 

History of the ADA: The Disability Rights Movement 

The ADA finds its roots in the American disability rights movement, efforts by changemakers and activists to guarantee people with disabilities would have the same rights as other Americans. 

The formation of disability groups and their subsequent activism can be traced back as far as the 1800s, but their largest impact started in the 1900s.

For example, people with disabilities fought for employment rights during the Great Depression, advocated for people in unsafe mental hospitals during World War II, and lobbied presidents like Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy to improve education, physical and mental health care services, and work opportunities for people with disabilities. 

All of this culminated in the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, and the subsequent ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which clarified and improved on the protections in the original ADA. Both federal civil rights laws represent huge progress for people with disabilities.

Empowered by the ADA and ADAAA, people with disabilities and their loved ones took to the courts in landmark discrimination cases that went all the way up to the Supreme Court. As a result, more laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities at school, in the workplace, and in everyday life became a reality. 

While activists with disabilities and organizations serving the disability community still lobby for improvement, the ADA offers a framework for equal opportunity that is highly impactful today.  

What disabilities are protected under the ADA? 

The ADA does not keep a strict list of protected disabilities. Instead, the ADA’s protections apply to “anyone with a disability.” 

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  • Has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or
  • Is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn)

The language of the ADA is written this way so that courts can interpret it broadly. The term “substantially limits,” for example, is not considered a strict guideline because everyone experiences disabilities and potentially disabling events differently. 

“Major life activities” include things like:

  • Movements. Walking, bending, standing, lifting, etc.
  • Cognitive processes. Thinking, focusing, memory, etc.
  • Tasks. Reading, learning, talking, working, etc. 
  • Sensory processes. Seeing, hearing, etc.
  • Actions. Breathing, sleeping, eating, speaking, etc. 
  • Autonomous processes. Internal major bodily functions like reproduction, circulation, or digestion; or the function of individual organs like the kidneys.

Let’s use allergies as an example. Whether or not an allergy is considered a disability under the ADA changes on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, someone who gets sniffly around cats or has minor seasonal allergies would most likely not be considered someone with a disability.

On the other hand, someone who could go into anaphylactic shock after eating peanuts could be considered disabled. This is because a severe nut allergy limits a major life activity (breathing).  

Things that might be considered a disability under the ADA include: 

Who needs to comply with the ADA?

Everyone, with some distinct exceptions. For example, businesses with less than 15 employees are sometimes exempt from certain parts of Title I employment protections (we’ll explain Title I protections later on in this guide). 

In general, people and organizations that have to follow ADA requirements include:

  • Employers with 15 or more employees
  • State and local governments
  • Businesses that are open to the public
  • Transportation service providers
  • Telecommunication companies
  • Any facility that receives federal funding, including public and private schools

For more information on ADA exceptions, reach out to a local discrimination lawyer or learn more on the ADA or Department of Labor websites. 

Who enforces the ADA?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the government entity most often associated with the ADA. Most of the EEOC’s duties apply to employment law, but their work trickles over to affect other things like fair housing and rehabilitation.  

Under the ADA, the EEOC can open discrimination investigations into individuals or companies based on complaints, tips, or public observation. If the investigation reveals discrimination, the EEOC can then file a lawsuit against the perpetrator or help the two parties reach a settlement. 

The EEOC’s website offers excellent resources for employers and workers alike. There, you can file discrimination complaints, find local EEOC offices, and learn about rights and responsibilities under the law for both employees and employers.  

Other entities that enforce the ADA include:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)
  • The Federal Transit Administration (FTA)
  • The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), specifically their Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)

The ADA’s Anti-Discrimination Policies: Titles I-V

The ADA is divided into five main sections called “Titles.” Each Title lays out protections for a different area of life. We’ll explore these below.

The five ADA Titles include:

  • Title I: Employment
  • Title II: Government services (Subtitle A) and public transit (Subtitle B)
  • Title III: Businesses open to the public
  • Title IV: Telecommunications
  • Title V: Miscellaneous provisions and how to interpret the law 

Title I: Employment Protections for People with Disabilities 

Title I of the ADA protects people with disabilities’ right to equal opportunity in finding a job, advancing in a career, and maintaining a safe work environment. Under the ADA, employers must offer reasonable accommodations to workers during the hiring process and for as long as someone remains employed.  

But what are “reasonable accommodations”? These are changes to hiring processes or work procedures that help someone with a disability perform their job well, and they’re required by law.

The exception to this is if incorporating the accommodation or modification would cause the employer “undue hardship,” like costing so much money or being so difficult to implement that it negatively impacts the business.

Accommodations in the workplace might include:

  • Installing wheelchair ramps and mobility aids
  • Hiring an ASL interpreter for meetings or using ASL relay services for calls 
  • Offering alternate application and interview processes
  • Allowing someone to sit in what is traditionally a standing role (i.e. cashiering or teaching)
  • Installing accessible software and hardware
  • Providing materials in Braille or large print
  • Welcoming a service animal into a common workspace
  • Offering a flexible or remote work schedule to accommodate doctors’ appointments and rest breaks

To learn more about the ways the ADA protects workers with disabilities, see Disability Rights in the Workplace: An Overview. And for more information about workplace accommodations for people with disabilities, see Employee Guide: How to Ask for Accommodations and Employer Guide: How to Offer Accommodations

Title II, Subtitle A: Rights to Government Services for People with Disabilities 

Under Title II of the ADA, state and local governments must provide an equal opportunity for people with disabilities to use all their services, programs, and activities.

This includes things like:

  • Voting
  • Using the court system (filing lawsuits, protesting traffic citations, serving on a jury, etc.)
  • Emergency services
  • Social services
  • Healthcare 
  • Transportation 
  • Town halls or other public meetings
  • Public education 
  • Recreation

In the past, public service providers offered separate programs for people with disabilities while also excluding them from services used by everyone else. The ADA prohibits this, and instead focuses on integrating people with disabilities into public spaces. 

Organizations can still offer programs catering to people with disabilities, but they cannot exclude them from other opportunities. People with disabilities must be able to choose whether they participate in specialized activities or not.  

For example, a public pool is encouraged to offer a swim program for people with sensory disabilities, but they cannot require people with disabilities to only swim at a certain time. A public park can offer guided tours for people with low vision, but they cannot require the blind to hike with a sighted companion. Museums, courts, and polling stations can offer disabled entrances, seating, or sections, but they cannot require that people with disabilities use those areas.   

For more information about filing complaints and ADA mediation services, visit the U.S. Department of Justice website. You can also call the DOJ’s ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 by voice or at 1-833-610-1264 for teletypewriter (TTY) services. 

Title II, Subtitle B: Public Transit Protections for People with Disabilities

The second part of Title II includes regulations for ensuring equal access to public transit systems like trains, planes, and bus routes. (Private transit systems like taxi companies and charter buses also have to abide by ADA regulations, but their regulations fall under Title III, businesses that are open to the public.)

Under Title II, Subtitle B of the ADA, transit providers must provide:

  • Rider information like maps and timetables in multiple formats (e.g. Braille, electronic options, etc.)
  • Lifts, ramps, and securement devices for wheelchairs and other mobility tools
  • Space for service animals
  • Priority seating with visible signage for passengers with disabilities 
  • Adequate time to board
  • Accessible bathrooms, if bathrooms are provided to others
  • Training for operators to assist passengers with disabilities respectfully and efficiently
  • Announcements of stops and routes
  • Proper lighting, contrast, and slip resistance for public areas 
  • Destination information on both the boarding side and the front of public vehicles (trains, buses, etc.)

In addition to following ADA Title II regulations, airplanes and air transit providers are subject to a secondary law called the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA). You’ll find more information about the ACAA at the end of this guide. 

To learn more about public transit rules under the ADA, visit the ADA National Network website. For complaints, visit the U.S. Department of Justice or Federal Transit Administration websites. 

Title III: Protections for People with Disabilities in Public-Facing Businesses

Title III of the ADA protects people with disabilities’ right to shop, eat, get around, and access services in public-facing businesses. This includes privately-owned businesses like private schools, luxury transit services, and membership stores. 

Businesses open to the public might include:

  • Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops 
  • Hotels
  • Gyms
  • Private schools
  • Hospitals and doctors’ offices
  • Day care centers 
  • Shopping malls and retail stores 
  • Movie theaters 
  • Privately operated transit like taxis, airport shuttles, hotel shuttles, and charter buses 
  • Commercial facilities like warehouses, factories, and office buildings 

The ADA requires public-facing businesses to provide: 

  • Accessible entrances, pathways, and seating (where applicable) 
  • Nondiscriminatory assistance to people with disabilities (like verbally describing products to blind customers or retrieving products from high shelves for wheelchair users)
  • Access for service animals 
  • Alternate communication options for people with vision, hearing, or speech disabilities
  • Accessible parking spaces (if the business provides parking)
  • Staff training on serving customers with disabilities 

In addition, public businesses must provide “reasonable modifications” to policies and procedures to welcome people with disabilities. For example, a private school with set breakfast, lunch, and dinner times must allow students with diabetes or digestive disabilities to eat snacks or take more time at mealtimes. 

Like workplace accommodations, this applies so long as accommodations don’t “fundamentally alter” the function of the business.

For example, a restaurant that only offers dine-in service does not have to offer takeaway or curbside pickup to people with disabilities, unless those services are offered to all patrons. However, the restaurant would have to have accessible entrances, pathways, and seating in the dining room. 

Religious organizations are exempt from Title III requirements, but they must still comply with local and state building codes that prevent discrimination based on disability.

Title IV: Telecommunications Companies and People with Disabilities

Title IV of the ADA covers telephone and television access for people with hearing, vision, and speech disabilities. 

Phone service providers must provide telecommunication relay services (TRS) 24/7. These services provide alternate communication methods for people with hearing, sight, or speech disabilities via a third party.

For example, if a person who is Deaf wanted to get in touch with a colleague who is blind, TRS would allow both callers to connect to an ASL interpreter so both parties can use their preferred communication method (voice, sign language, text, etc.).

Title IV also requires closed captioning of public service announcements and other broadcasts. To learn more about Title IV requirements, visit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website.

Title V: Other Requirements

Because the ADA does not cover every aspect of life, Title V provides miscellaneous regulations and guidance for how to interpret the ADA as law. 

Title V includes requirements like:

  • Authorizing courts to award attorneys’ fees to winning parties in ADA lawsuits
  • Letting people with disabilities choose whether or not to accept an accommodation or aid
  • Forbidding retaliation against anyone who has asserted their rights under the ADA
  • Requiring some federal agencies to explain the law and offer additional resources

Understanding Your Rights Under the ADA 

What should I do if I’m discriminated against because of my disability?

If you’ve experienced discrimination because of your disability, the best thing to do is file a complaint with the proper authority. You can do this online, in-person, or with the assistance of an attorney or government representative.

Here are the best places to file a discrimination complaint by category:

For concerns that don’t fit into one of these categories, consider working with an anti-discrimination attorney or contacting your local ADA office.

What Other Laws Protect People with Disabilities?

The ADA is not an exhaustive source of protections for people with disabilities. Other legislation covers basic rights to things like housing, employment, and travel not otherwise covered by the ADA. These include the Fair Housing Act, the Air Carriers Access Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, among others.

Fair Housing Act

Certain types of housing must comply with ADA regulations, like public housing programs or dormitories at universities. The Fair Housing Act covers housing situations not already addressed by the ADA, like apartment complexes and condominiums.

Under the Fair Housing Act, no landlord, seller, mortgage lender, or other housing authority may discriminate based on:

  • Disability
  • Gender identity, sex, or sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • National origin 
  • Race
  • Color 
  • Familial status (e.g. divorced, married, single parent, etc.)

To learn more about the Fair Housing Act, visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s website

Air Carriers Access Act

The Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) prevents discrimination in air travel situations not already covered by Title II of the ADA. 

Under the ACAA, airlines must assist passengers with disabilities, including wheelchair assistance to board and deplane, seating accommodations, and storage for assistive devices. Airlines are also subject to service animal regulations.

In addition, airlines may not:

  • Limit the number of travelers with disabilities on a flight. 
  • Require people with disabilities to travel with assistants (although there are exceptions under specific circumstances).
  • Prevent people with disabilities from sitting in a specific seat (with the exception of emergency exit rows and other Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements).

However, airlines may refuse transportation if disability accommodations would create a safety risk for the flight. For example, an airline may refuse service to someone who uses an electric wheelchair if storing the wheelchair on board would create a safety hazard for passengers or flight crew. 

To learn more, visit the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) website

Rehabilitation Act

Signed in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act requires federal and federal contractor workplaces to give qualified people with disabilities equal employment opportunities. 

Note the word “qualified.” This means that federal employers cannot refuse to hire someone based on their disability, but they can pass on hiring if the person is not qualified for the role. 

For example, let’s say the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wanted to hire a new auditor for pharmaceutical companies. The FTC could not deny employment because an applicant uses a wheelchair, but they could if the person’s work history did not match the role.

Similarly, a hiring manager at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could not reject someone because they have multiple sclerosis, but could deny employment if the person doesn’t have a high enough security clearance.

To learn more about the Rehabilitation Act, visit the EEOC website.  

Where can I get more information about my rights under the ADA? 

Resources for Disabled Workers in the United States

To learn more about your rights as a worker with disabilities, see: 

Additional Resources

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the official ADA.gov website

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers resources for workers, employers, and others related to discrimination in the workplace.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers guidance on workers’ rights and other employment considerations. 

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