Skip Navigation

Office on Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is landmark civil rights legislation that is the result of decades of advocacy to improve the lives and the role in society of persons with disabilities.  Although it is certainly the best known law protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, the ADA was not the country's first step toward legislating equality for people with disabilities. Other important federal laws existed before the ADA was enacted; each was designed to prohibit discrimination based on disability and to promote accessibility for persons with disabilities.  For example, the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 requires federal buildings and facilities, and places leased by agencies receiving federal funds, to meet certain accessibility standards. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in programs or activities either conducted by federal agencies or by organizations receiving federal funds.  However, while well intended, these earlier civil rights laws often were not strongly enforced. 

During the 1970s and up to the present, advocacy by persons with disabilities has become increasingly visible, both nationally and internationally. The emergence of the disability rights and independent living movements has been pivotal in the development of state and federal disability policy leading up to and including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  Disability advocacy also has been directed toward the development of services and resources to support the personal independence of persons with disabilities and to expand community-based living options that can promote full participation in community life. 

In 1986, the National Council on Disability issued Toward Independence recommending enactment of a comprehensive law requiring equal opportunity for persons with disabilities. The Council drafted the first version of the ADA, which was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate in 1988. Hearings on the legislation were held in every state.  A second version of the Act was introduced in May of 1989 and, in just over a year,  a final version passed both  House and Senate by overwhelming majorities. Key sponsors and supporters came from both sides of the aisle and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund spearheaded an effective negotiating team on behalf of the disability community.    With 3000 disability rights advocates, members of Congress and the Administration looking on, the ADA was signed into law on the morning of July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.  The ADA reaches farther than previous laws by applying to private entities not linked to federal funds, and to places of public accommodation (such as restaurants, hotels, theaters and shopping centers).

The Act and Enforcement of Rights

The ADA is a federal law that protects over 54 million Americans with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit daily activities.  These activities include working, walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or caring for oneself.  Those with a record of such an impairment and those regarded as having an impairment also are protected under the ADA.  Whether a particular condition constitutes a disability within the meaning of the ADA requires a case-by-case determination.  The ADA provides comprehensive civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities in the areas of employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications.  This law protects members of the disability community across the lifespan, from newborns to older adults with disabilities. 

The five major Titles of the ADA are enforced by one or more federal agencies:

  • Employment
  • State and Local Government
  • Public Accommodations
  • Telecommunications
  • Miscellaneous Provisions

Enforcement of the ADA is a complaint-driven process.  If a person with a disability believes that he or she is being discriminated against, it is in his or her best interest to bring this issue to the attention of someone who can assess, address, and remedy the situation.   This person could be an employer, a mediator, an attorney, or someone at the federal government agency responsible for enforcing the particular provision of the law.  ADA protection is afforded to all persons with disabilities regardless of their age or kind of disability.  However, the ways in which the law is enforced varies based on the individual case. 

Sometimes action on a claim of discrimination against a person with a disability is taken to the judiciary branch in the form of a lawsuit.  The state legal system in the United States most often is three-tiered: District, Appellate and Supreme Court. A case is typically brought by the complainant at the lowest level or court, usually a "District" or "Trial" court. Once a case is heard and a decision, or "judgment", is made, both the defendant and the plaintiff have the opportunity to appeal the decision to an "Appellate Court" or "Court of Appeals."  In other words, they can try to get the trial court decision reversed by asking the next higher level in the court system to review the case. However an appeal can be entered if the party believes the judge made a legal error.  Disappointment in the outcome is insufficient grounds for an appeal.  After the Appellate Court hears the case, the parties can appeal once more to the highest court, usually called the Supreme Court and usually composed of nine justices. All 50 states and the federal courts have some version of a Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decides issues in the same manner as the Appellate Court. However, because no court is higher than the Supreme Court, no further appeal is possible. The judgment of the Supreme Court is final. 

Sometimes a discrimination issue can be resolved without the need to take a case all the way through the court system.  Some litigation is resolved when a suit is first filed or shortly thereafter using what is called a negotiated consent decree. Consent decrees and formal written settlement agreements are two ways in which ADA disputes often are resolved.  A consent decree is a judicial declaration expressing a voluntary agreement between parties to a suit, in this case most often an agreement by a defendant to cease activities alleged by the government to be in violation of the ADA, in return for an end to the lawsuit, are monitored and enforced by the Federal court in which they are entered.  Formal written settlement agreements are utilized when the entity blamed for violating ADA provisions agrees to discontinue discrimination and alter its policy without the need to involve the court system.  In some instances, the public accommodation, commercial facility, or State or local government promptly agrees to take the necessary actions to achieve compliance.  In others, extensive negotiations are required, but these entities eventually do comply.  An increasing number of people with disabilities and disability rights organizations are specifically requesting referrals of their complaints to mediation. More than 400 professional mediators are available nationwide to mediate ADA cases. Over 75% of the cases in which mediation has been completed have been successfully resolved.[1]  The Titles of the Act are summarized below.

Titles of the Americans with Disabilities Act

1.  Employment (42 U.S.C.A. chapter 126, subchapter I; §12112 et. seq.)

The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in public and private sector employment. This includes a requirement that employers covered under the Act make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of qualified applicants and employees, unless providing such accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

  • Employment provisions apply to all public services and private employers with 15+ employees.
  • Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants or employees with disabilities unless it would result in undue hardship for the employer.
  • Employers may reject applicants or fire employees who are a direct threat to the health and safety of others.
  • Employers may not discriminate against people who have an association with an individual known to have a disability.  For example, employers cannot discriminate against parents who have a child with a disability.
  • Individuals may file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

2.  State and Local Government (42 U.S.C.A. chapter 126, subchapter II; §12132 et. seq.)

The ADA expands on the requirement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that state and local government programs receiving federal financial assistance provide equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities to participate and benefit. The ADA extends that same requirement to public programs that are not recipients of federal financial assistance and, therefore, not covered by Section 504.

  • Public services may not discriminate against individuals with disabilities.  All government programs, services, facilities, and communications must be accessible, consistent with the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
  • Individuals may file complaints with federal agencies designated by the U.S. Attorney General or bring private lawsuits.
  • The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been designated enforcement responsibility under Title II of the ADA for state and local health care and human service agencies.

3.  Public Accommodations (42 U.S.C.A. chapter 126, subchapter III; §12182 et. seq.)

The ADA addresses the widespread exclusion of persons with disabilities from the routine activities of daily life which most Americans take for granted by requiring that a wide range of "public accommodations" in the private sector eliminate physical, communications and procedural barriers to access. The ADA reaches a broad range of sales, rental and service establishments, as well as educational institutions, recreational facilities and social services centers.

  • Public accommodations (such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, private schools, and day care centers) may not discriminate against people with disabilities.  Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt from the law.
  • Reasonable changes in policies, practices, and procedures must be made to avoid discrimination.
  • Auxiliary aids and services must be provided for individuals with visual, hearing, or sensory impairments in order for these persons to participate or benefit, unless doing so would cause an undue burden on the business. 
  • Physical barriers located in existing facilities of public accommodations must be removed when it is “readily achievable,” or in other word when it can be accomplished easily and without much cost.
  • All construction of new building facilities and alterations of existing facilities in public accommodations, as well as in commercial facilities must comply with the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) so they are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  • New privately owned buildings are not required to install elevators if they are less than three stories high, or if they have less than 3,000 square feet per story, unless the building is a shopping center, mall, or a professional office of a health care provider.
  • Public accommodations may not discriminate against individuals or entities who have an association with individuals known to have a disability.
  • This title also addresses transportation provided by private entities.
  • Individuals may bring private lawsuits to stop discrimination, but money will not be awarded.  Individuals may also file complaints with the U.S. Attorney General, who may file lawsuits to stop discrimination and obtain money damages and penalties.

4.  Telecommunications (Title IV of P.L. 101-336, July 26, 1990, 104 Stat. 336 which enacted 47 U.S.C.A. §225.)

The ADA addresses the need to make telephone communications services accessible to individuals with impaired hearing or speech. Therefore, this title requires that all common carriers provide nationwide TRS, or Telecommunications Relay Services. [Note: Relay Services are operator systems that relay conversations between people who use TDDs (Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf) or non-voice terminal devices and those who use the general voice telephone network.]

  • Title IV requires that telephone companies provide telecommunications relay services that allow individuals with hearing impairments to communicate using a TTY or other non-voice device.
  • Title IV also requires that all television public service announcements produced by or funded in whole or in part by the federal government include closed captioning.
  • Individuals may file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

5.  Miscellaneous Provisions (42 U.S.C.A. chapter 126, subchapter IV; §12201 et. seq.)

This title includes information regarding the ADA’s relationship with other federal and state laws, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; requirements relating to the provision of insurance, construction, and design regulations by the U.S. Access Board; prohibition of state immunity; inclusion of Congress as a covered entity under the law; promotion of alternative means of dispute resolution; and establishment of technical assistance resources.

For more information about the Office on Disability, its programs and initiatives,
be sure to visit the OD website at:

August  2005