Americans with Disabilities Act - Explained

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law, signed in 1990 and amended in 2008, that protects the rights of people with disabilities and prevents discrimination on the basis of disability. It requires employers, local and state governments, and providers of public services to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.

What is considered a disability under the ADA?

The ADA does not list every disability. It defines disability as

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (i.e. working, talking, hearing, seeing, thinking, communicating, caring for one's self, major bodily functions)
  2. the record of such an impairment (for example, someone having recovered from cancer or a serious illness)
  3. being regarded by others as having an impairment (such as individuals with severe facial scarring)

According to the ADA National Network, “Examples of specific impairments that should easily be concluded to be disabilities 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.”

What is considered a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is one that allows the person with a disability to participate in a comparable way as those without disabilities (for example, making an employee able to perform essential job functions) without imposing “undue hardship.” Undue hardship is explained by the ADA National Network as an “’action requiring significant difficulty or expense’ when considered in light of a number of factors. These factors include the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer's operation. Organization would be considered, as well as the financial and administrative relationship of the facility to the larger organization.”

What sorts of protections are provided by the ADA?

There are five sections or titles that apply to different circumstances.

Title I applies to employment private entities of 15 employees or more

Title 2 applies to local and state governments.

Title 3 applies to public accommodations and commercial facilities.

Title 4 applies to telecommunications.

Title 5 comprises miscellaneous provisions.

Who enforces the ADA?

This depends on the regulation and circumstance in question. Generally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles employment (Title I) issues, while the Department of Justice (DoJ) handles legal suits (Title II and III).

Are any public institutions exempt from the ADA?

Religious or ministerial positions are exempt from Title I, though employees of a religious institution may still be covered under Title I if their position is not ministerial in nature. Religious institutions or entities controlled by religious institutions, including places of worship, are exempt from Title III. However, they may still be covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act if they have received federal funding.

Can you be protected by the ADA if you are nondisabled?

Yes. In some cases, an advocate acting on the behalf of someone with a disability may be protected by non-retaliation statutes. Also, because one way the ADA defines disability is “being regarded as having such an impairment,” the ADA may apply if a person is perceived and treated as though they were disabled, even if they do not consider themselves functionally disabled.