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What is the Americans with Disabilities Act and can it help me?


The ADA is a far reaching and comprehensive set of Federal Civil Rights laws and regulations.  The fundamental principle of the ADA is to make sure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities.  The ADA broadly protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, in access to state and local government services, in places of public accommodation, in transportation, and in other important areas of American life.


The ADA protects an “individual with a disability “which is defined as: “someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Here are some examples of “major life activities:”

caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.

Some of the conditions that would generally qualify someone as an “individual with a disability” include:         

deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.



It is illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in nearly every public setting: schools, child-care centers, government facilities and in government-sponsored activities, as well as in workplaces. It is illegal to discriminate in public places as well, such as restaurants, parks and businesses.  Most public areas must be readily accessible for use by people with disabilities.

Transportation must be readily accessible to all people.

The ADA generally does not apply in private settings, such as someone’s home.


NOTE: Different “Titles” or Sections of the ADA, Apply to Different Situations:




Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination in all areas of employment: in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other “privileges” of employment.

It restricts questions that employers can ask a job applicant about his or her disability before a job offer is made.


Reasonable Accommodations Must Be Made

Title I requires employers who have 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities, unless it results in undue hardship.

 “Otherwise Qualified” means that you have to meet the legitimate skill, experience, education, or other requirements for the job. You have to be able to perform the “essential” functions of the job with or without accommodations.


Reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable you to apply for the job or to perform essential job functions.

You Must Request Reasonable Accommodations

The Employer must know about the disability and about what specific accommodation you are requesting. So you must ask for the accommodation and explain why it is necessary before the employer has to respond.

For example: someone who can’t stand for long periods of time could ask to do his or her job while seated; if all of the essential functions of the job can be done this way, this accommodation would be reasonable.

EXCEPTION: Requested Accommodation Can’t Put “Undue Hardship” on Employer.


An Employer can refuse a requested accommodation if it would cause"Undue hardship" on the operation of the business.

Undue hardship: if the accommodation that the employee wants would be very difficult to put into place, or if it would cause significant expense to the employer, or if it would change the fundamental nature of the job.


If a requested accommodation would be an undue hardship, the employer has to try to identify another accommodation that will not pose such a hardship.

These decisions about accommodations are always based on the particular facts of each case, on a case by case basis.


Title II of the ADA says that Government departments and agencies (“public entities”) may not discriminate against people with disabilities: whether applicants, participants, companions, and members of the public. 


People with disabilities have to be given the same opportunity to participate in and enjoy the benefits of every program, service, and activity offered by a public entity as anyone else. 


This includes activities such as public education, employment (no matter how many employees), transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, town meetings and any other Government activities. 


State and local governments must make sure that their buildings are facilities are accessible to everyone. If a government program is in an older building that is inaccessible to people with disabilities, they must relocate the program or otherwise provide access.  They must reasonably modify policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination.


Public entities are also have to communicate effectively with people who have hearing, vision, or speech disabilities. To do this, they must provide the appropriate “auxiliary aids and services” that are needed to make sure that people with disabilities can participate in every program.


EXCEPTION: Modification would alter the nature of the program.

If the public entity can demonstrate that a particular modification would “fundamentally alter the nature of its service, program, or activity,” it is not required to make that modification, nor are they required to take actions that would result in undue financial and administrative burdens.



All public transportation systems are covered by Title II and must be accessible to people with disabilities.  Public transportation authorities must not discriminate in providing services to all people.


Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in “public accommodations.” 

Public Accommodations under the ADA are private businesses that provide goods or services to the public, and include:


  • restaurants,

  • service establishments,

  • theaters,

  • hotels,

  • recreational facilities,

  • private museums and schools,

  • doctors’ and dentists’ offices,

  • shopping malls, and other businesses.

  • Title III also covers commercial facilities (such as warehouses, factories, and office buildings), private transportation services, and licensing and testing practices.

  • Private transportation services open to the public


Businesses covered by the ADA must modify their business policies and procedures when necessary to serve customers with disabilities. 

They must also and take steps to communicate effectively with customers with disabilities.

They must architectural barriers in existing buildings, and make sure that newly built or altered facilities are constructed to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. They must remove barriers in existing buildings where it is easy to do so without much difficulty or expense, given their resources.

Public accommodations may not practice exclusion, segregation, or unequal treatment.


Here are some examples:

Customers with disabilities may need different types of assistance to access available goods and services. For example, a grocery store clerk is expected to assist a customer using a mobility device by retrieving merchandise from high shelves. A person who is blind may need assistance maneuvering through a store’s aisles. A customer with an intellectual disability may need assistance in reading product labels and instructions.

Public accommodations do have options in the way that they accommodate customers’ disabilities.  For example, a rrestaurant doesn’t have to print out all of its menus in braille, but it does have to have someone available to read the menu to someone who is blind, if necessary.  Or provide someone who can write back and forth to communicate with someone who is deaf.

Threat exception: The ADA expressly provides that a public accommodation may exclude an individual if that individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be mitigated by appropriate modifications in the public accommodation's policies or procedures or by the provision of auxiliary aids.

EXCEPTION: Fundamentally alter nature of the service, or undue burden.

The ADA does not require modifications that would fundamentally alter the nature of the services provided. For example, it would not be discriminatory for an eye doctor to send a deaf patient with a broken limb to an orthopedist instead of treating that person. To require the eye doctor to fix a broken limb would fundamentally alter the nature of the business.

If an alteration would result in an undue burden to a business, it need not be done. For example, a small coffeeshop would not be required to have a sign language interpreter on staff, but they would have to provide someone to communicate with a deaf person by writing.

These decisions regarding Fundamental Alteration or Undue Burden are to be made on a case by case basis. 


Title IV is aimed at making sure that people with hearing and speech disabilities can access telephone and television services. Common carriers (phone companies) have to have interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services (TRS) available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Title IV also requires closed captioning of Federally funded public service announcements.




1. The Fair Housing Act

The FHA requires owners of housing facilities to make reasonable exceptions in their policies and operations to afford people with disabilities equal housing opportunities.

For example, a landlord with a "no pets" policy may be required to grant an exception to this rule and allow an individual who is blind to keep a guide dog in the residence.

Landlords also have to allow tenants with disabilities to make reasonable access-related changes or modifications to the private space they rent and common use areas. 

The landlord must allow it, if reasonable, but the tenant must pay for it.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act:

Programs that receive Federal Financial assistance

Section 504 applies to all programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance (such as schools, or programs that are federally funded).

In every such case, "No qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under" these programs or activities. 

Often students that are not “disabled” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) but who qualify under section 504 receive accommodations through a 504 plan at their local school.  These laws have different definitions of “disability.”

Postsecondary schools have no obligations under IDEA but do have to provide accommodations under Section 504. Each Federal agency has its own set of section 504 regulations that apply to its own programs. Generally these regulations include reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities; and accessible new construction and alterations to existing buildings.


To file an ADA complaint:

You can file an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint alleging disability discrimination against a State or local government or a public accommodation (private business including, for example, a restaurant, doctor's office, retail store, hotel, etc.).


(Clicking on one of the links below will take you away from

Job Accommodation Network: 

This is a wonderful resource that can help you answer questions about Title I.  It provides information about which accommodations have been found to be reasonable, and also speaks to related issues.

Filing an ADA Complaint:




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