Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) was signed into law, filling gaps in existing civil rights law. The ADA goes beyond the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, religion, and other personal characteristics. The ADA also requires certain locales and entities to make their facilities accessible to people with disabilities. To explore this concept, consider the following Americans with Disabilities Act definition.

Definition of Americans with Disabilities Act


  1. Legislation that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.


1990    Congressional Legislation

History of the Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, making it illegal for any employer or other establishment to discriminate against people based on their “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” What the Civil Rights Act did not do was provide specific protections to people with disabilities that limit their ability to engage in the same activities as those with no limitations. Across the nation, people with disabilities, and parents of children with disabilities, began challenging social barriers, as well as physical barriers, on their way to independent living.

Over a period of decades, people with disabilities, their friends and families, and other supportive people, protested by sitting in the lobbies of federal buildings, obstructing the movement of buses that were inaccessible to them, holding marches, and lobbying Congress for new laws addressing the injustice of inaccessibility and discrimination.

In 1988, the National Council on Disability brought the first draft of an Americans with Disabilities Act before the Senate. The bill made its way through Congress over the span of two years, being amended a number of times, before it was finally signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H. W. Bush. The ADA was substantially amended nearly 20 years later, and again signed into law, this time by President George W. Bush, on January 1, 2009.

The ADA provides a broad range of protections for people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in a wide variety of situations, from governmental assistance programs, to employment, transportation, and housing. In addition to protecting the rights of disabled Americans, the ADA requires employers, providers of public transportation, and other entities to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled individuals.

Definition of Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA specifically defines the term “disability” as any individual who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such an impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

Disabilities under the ADA include both physical and mental conditions, which may be permanent or temporary. While just about any condition has the potential to be considered a disability, should its symptoms become severe enough to limit the individual’s major life activities, there are a number of conditions that are immediately considered to be disabling. These include such conditions as:

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Having disability in intellectual functioning, or adaptive behavior
  • Autism
  • Down’s Syndrome
  • Missing limbs, whether partial or complete
  • Mobility impairment requiring the use of a wheelchair
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”)
  • Cancer

There are also certain conditions that are specifically excluded from the definition of “disability” under the ADA, including such disorders as gender identity disorder, pedophilia, and kleptomania.

Sections of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Amendments were made to the ADA, which were signed into law on January 1, 2009. The current text of the ADA is available on the ADA’s website, and is organized into five sections, or “titles,” each addressing a different division of public access.

ADA Title I – Employment

Title I of the ADA covers discrimination in employment. Title I states:

“No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”

It goes on to define “covered entities” as employers with 15 or more employees, labor organizations, employment agencies, and joint labor management committees. Such employers cannot discriminate by refusing to hire, firing, or refusing to promote an employee based on a disability. Additionally, such employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to enable a disabled employee to do his job.

What is a Reasonable Accommodation

A reasonable accommodation is an alteration in the way certain things are normally done, that is necessary in order for the disabled person to do his job well. Reasonable accommodations include changes that do not pose an undue hardship on the employer. This may include such things as altering a job schedule, restructuring a job (trading or eliminating non-essential tasks), or providing special equipment for the employee’s use.

Accommodations under the ADA are intended to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his specific job, and to meet expected performance requirements. An employer is not required to provide any accommodation that is expensive, or too difficult to do. The Office of Disability Rights provides information on reasonable accommodations for employers and employees alike.

ADA Title II – Public Entities and Public Transportation

Title II of the ADA covers discrimination by public entities, which includes government offices, school districts, and others at the city, county, and state levels. Title II prohibits discrimination in any program or service offered by a public entity or provider of public transportation. Accessibility under Title II also includes the requirement to provide physical access for those who are mobility impaired.

ADA Title III – Public Accommodations

Title III of the ADA governs the construction of public facilities that are accessible to people who are mobility impaired. Title III also applies to existing public facilities, as they are required to remove architectural barriers. This is required where removing such barriers can be achieved without great difficult or expense. Public accommodations include hotels and other places of lodging, recreation areas, educational facilities, restaurants and other dining facilities, stores, transportation hubs, and places of public display.

Title IV – Telecommunications

Title IV of the ADA requires all U.S. telecommunications companies to take the necessary steps to ensure consumers with disabilities have equal access to communications services. This most commonly applies to the deaf and hard of hearing, and people with significant speech impairments, though it can apply to others. In the 1990s, Title IV led to the installation and provision of public teletypewriter (“TTY”) devices and other machines.

Title IV is also responsible for the creation of dual-party relay services, which are now referred to as Telecommunications Relay Services (“TRS”). TRS calls are made by disabled consumers over the internet, and mediated by human communications assistants.

Title V – Miscellaneous Provisions

Title V of the ADA takes care of technical provisions, and contains information that clarifies a number of issues. In addition, Title V prohibits retaliation for reports of discrimination or non-compliance. The ADA’s Technical Assistance Manual, Section III-3.6000 provides:

“Individuals who exercise their rights under the ADA, or assist others in exercising their rights, are protected from retaliation … Any form of retaliation or coercion, including threats, intimidation, or interference, is prohibited …”

Example of Americans with Disabilities Act Retaliation

When Helena arrives at a Hoof It, a local steakhouse, with her family, she finds that she is unable to get her wheelchair between the tables. The staff moves a table just outside the doorway of the bar for the family. During the meal, Helena discovers the door into the restroom is narrow, preventing her from entering. She speaks with the hostess, who tells her others have complained about these issues, but the owner hasn’t done anything about it.

The following day, Helena files an ADA complaint, which prompts an inspection. The restaurant owner was fined and required to bring his restaurant up to ADA guidelines immediately. The food at Hoof It was excellent, so six months later, Helena’s family heads there again, and is pleased to find easy access. However, the owner, who is acting as host that evening, refuses to seat Helena and her family, obviously holding a grudge for her complaint. In this example of Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 complaints, the restaurant’s owner is acting illegal again, retaliating against Helena for filing a complaint.

Enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

The U.S. Department of Justice administers the ADA website, which is located at The website provides a host of information, from ADA requirements and technical assistance, to disability resources. The website also provides guidelines for employers, and often features reports and articles relevant to the issue. Additionally, the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (“ODEP”) provides a wide variety of publications and assistance with ADA requirements, though it has no hand in enforcing the law.

There are, however, four separate federal agencies responsible for enforcing the ADA requirements:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) – responsible for enforcing regulations on employment discrimination. The EEOC also provides information on employment rights.
  • Department of Justice (“DOJ”) – responsible for enforcing reasonable accommodations in employment. This includes helping employers assess requests for reasonable accommodation, and to come up with a solution that will help the employee perform his essential job functions.
  • Department of Transportation (“DOT”) – responsible for enforcing accessibility regulations in public transportation. Information on DOT accessibility can be found on the DOT’s accessibility page.
  • Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (“ATBCB”) – responsible for issuing guidelines for ensuring plans for buildings, facilities, and transit vehicles are in compliance with ADA requirements for accessibility.
  • Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) – responsible for enforcing telecommunication guidelines for hearing and speech impaired individuals. The FTC provides information on ADA guidelines in communications on their website.
  • Civil Rights Center – a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Civil Rights Center is responsible for enforcing ADA guidelines in state and local governmental workforce practices.

Tax Incentives for Bringing Facilities into ADA Compliance

The federal government recognizes that bringing existing facilities into ADA compliance is an expense many businesses cannot afford. Because of this, the IRS gives tax incentives for bringing facilities into ADA compliance. The tax credit is available for expenses for barrier removal and structural alterations, to a maximum credit of $15,000 per year.

Additional tax credits are available for providing signage, menus, and other items in accessible formats, such as large print, audio, and Braille. This tax credit reimburses the facility up to $5,000 per year. Up-to-date information on ADA tax credits is available on the IRS website.

Americans with Disabilities Act Example in Internet Use

In 2005, the National Federation of the Blind (the “NFB”) sent a series of letters to Target Corporation, making them aware of problems with their website, which made it inaccessible for people who are blind. The letters requested that Target adopt standards of the World Wide Web Consortium and the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, specifically asking that they adopt the “alt” attribute on the website’s clickable images. As these are simple changes in coding the website, the NFB didn’t anticipate resistance. The NFB participated in unsuccessful negotiations with Target for a year before filing a class action lawsuit against Target Corporation in February 2006.

The lawsuit claimed that blind people using assistive devices were unable to access a great deal of information on Target’s website. It further argued that this violated Title III of the ADA, which governs discrimination in places of public accommodation. The NFB’s petition described a user’s experience when selecting the image of a particular vacuum cleaner using his tab key. The user’s voice synthesizer, rather than providing a useful description of the image, said “Link GP browse dot html reference zero six zero six one eight nine six three eight one eight zero seven two nine seven three five 12 million 957 thousand 121.”

The NFB’s petition also complained that the retailer’s website lacked such accommodations as image maps, which create multiple active regions in an image, making it easier for visually impaired people to click to navigate the website. In addition, the checkout pages did not provide a method for blind users to know where the mouse pointer was located on the screen.

Prior to the NFB’s lawsuit, such technological access had skirted the issue of ADA compliance. Although Target attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that the ADA accessibility provisions applied only to brick-and-mortar establishments, the court ruled that a retailer can be sued if its website is inaccessible to the blind, emphasizing that the ADA prohibits discrimination in the “enjoyment of goods, services, facilities or privileges” offered by public facilities.

The parties reached a settlement in September, 2008, in which Target agreed to make changes to its website and its policies, and to establish a $6 million settlement fund to compensate member plaintiffs. Target also agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ “reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs,” to be determined by the court. In this example of Americans with Disabilities Act litigation, the judge awarded attorneys’ fees and costs in the amount of nearly $4 million.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Class Action Lawsuit – A lawsuit filed by one person, on behalf of a larger group of people with a common interest in the matter.
  • Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Government Assistance Programs – Any government program, service, project, or activity that directly assists people or organizations in areas of education, health, public safety, public welfare, or public works.
  • Public Entity – Any department, agency, special purpose district, or other organization of local, state or federal government.
  • Public Transportation – Any form of transportation that is available to the public, including buses, subways, trains, and ferries, among others.
  • Retaliation – The taking of adverse action against someone because he engaged in a protected activity, such as reporting violations of laws, regulations, or civil rights.
  • Telecommunications – The transmission of information, as words, sounds, or images, usually over great distances, such as by telephone, radio, television, or internet.