Learn About The ADA

The ADA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in many circumstances. The law includes five main parts, or “titles,” including:

The Basics

More on Title I

Title I of the ADA covers Private Employers that have 15 or more employees for each working day in each of 20 or more calendar weeks in the same calendar year as the alleged discrimination, or in the calendar year prior to the alleged discrimination. Part-time and temporary workers count during any calendar weeks they worked.

In some cases employers that look like separate entities are actually parts of an “integrated enterprise.” An integrated enterprise is one where the ownership or operation of two or more entities is so intertwined that they are treated as a single entity.

Employment agencies and labor unions may also be covered by Title I. In some instances employment agencies, together with the employers for whom their clients go to work, function as “joint employers.”

State and local governments’ employment practices are covered no matter how many employees they have.

Federal employment is not covered by the ADA, but rather by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The provisions of the Rehabilitation Act are similar to those of the ADA, but there are some distinctions.

Both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act address all aspects of employment, including the selection process (applications, interviews, pre-employment tests, etc.), on-the-job issues (performing job duties, assignments, compensation, conduct, opportunities for promotion, lay-offs and terminations, etc.) and employment benefits.

Harassment and retaliation are also prohibited, and it is important to note that individuals with or without disabilities are protected from retaliation if they oppose unlawful discrimination.

If you are an employer, whether private, state or local government, or federal, visit our "Employers" pages for more information and resources.

If you are an individual with a disability who is working or looking for work, visit our "Job Seekers and Employees with Disabilities" page.

More on Title II

Title II covers state and local governments, called “public entities” in the ADA and its implementing regulations. Title II covers everything public entities do, including their employment practices.

Public entities offer a broad array of other programs, services, and activities, ranging from fun to fundamental, and encompassing everything from the provision of a swimming class to the construction and maintenance of city sidewalks.

Programs of public entities are often covered by other laws in addition to the ADA. For example, some state and local governments provide residential housing programs, particularly for individuals with disabilities, elders, or people with low income. These programs may be subject to the requirements of the Fair Housing Act; additionally, they often receive federal funds, so they are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Title II prohibits discrimination, which could include intentional denial of participation or the establishment of discriminatory criteria that unnecessarily restrict participation by individuals with disabilities.

Discrimination could also include failure to reasonably modify policies or practices to allow individuals to gain access and participate in programs and services. Reasonable modifications might include a variety of things, such as making exceptions to no-pets policies to admit individuals with disabilities who use service animals.

Covered entities must also provide “auxiliary aids and services” when necessary to ensure that communication is as effective with people with hearing and vision disabilities as it is with others. Auxiliary aids and services include things like writing notes, using assistive listening devices, or providing interpreter services to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or reading materials aloud or providing them in accessible formats, such as Braille or large print, for people who are blind or have low vision.

Title II also establishes specific requirements related to architectural accessibility. Newly constructed or altered buildings must meet minimum accessibility standards.

Additionally, public entities must take measures to ensure that programs offered in existing structures are available to individuals with disabilities in a way that is as integrated as possible. Such measures might include structural improvements to existing buildings, or non-structural methods like relocating programs to alternate facilities.

More on Title III

Title III of the ADA addresses public accommodations, commercial facilities, and certain private entities that offer courses and examinations.

Entities that offer examinations and courses related to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes have obligations to ensure equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Commercial facilities include a variety of private, non-residential places that are not open to the general public but where people work, such as factories, warehouses, and the like. Commercial facilities are only subject to Title III’s new construction and alteration requirements; they have no obligation to remove barriers in existing structures, nor are they subject to any of the other general non-discrimination requirements in Title III.

Public accommodations are private entities that own, lease, lease to, or operate a place of public accommodation.

It is important to note that the private entities covered by Title III do not include religious entities. Religious entities often operate places of public accommodation, such as food banks, adoption agencies, thrift stores, homeless shelters, day care centers, schools, and hospitals. However, these operations are not covered if they are controlled by a religious entity, even when the goods or services offered are available to the general public. A religious entity is not covered as a landlord, either, even if it leases space to an entity that is covered, such as a non-religious private day care center.

Bona fide private membership clubs are also exempt from Title III, but only to the extent that their goods or services are not available to the general public.

Although there are only twelve types of places of public accommodations (places of lodging, places serving food or drink, places of exhibition or entertainment, places of public gathering, sales or rental establishments, service establishments, certain types of public transportation terminals, places of public display or collection, places of recreation, places of education, social service center establishments, and places of exercise or recreation), there are hundreds of examples of businesses that fall within one or more of the twelve types.

For example, banks, beauty salons, tailors, auto repair shops, dry cleaners, pharmacies, and offices of doctors, accountants, travel agents, and lawyers are all service establishments.

Businesses of all sizes are covered, both for-profit and not-for-profit.

Title III, like Title II, requires non-discrimination, reasonable modification of policies and practices, and the provision of auxiliary aids and services (written notes, assistive listening devices, large print materials, etc.) when necessary to ensure effective communication with people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who are blind or have low vision.

Title III also establishes specific requirements related to architectural accessibility. Newly constructed or altered buildings must meet minimum accessibility standards.

Additionally, public accommodations must remove barriers in existing facilities when it is “readily achievable” to do so. “Readily achievable” means something can be easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense.

If you own or operate a place of public accommodation, visit our "Retail/Services" page for more information, frequently asked questions, and resources.

More on Title IV

Title IV requires that telecommunication relay services be made available to enable people with hearing or speech disabilities to use the nation’s telecommunication system. Relay services must be available every day, 24 hours a day; skilled relay operators must convey conversations accurately and maintain confidentiality. Users may not be charged rates higher than those charged for functionally equivalent voice communication services.

Captioning is also required for any television public service announcement that is produced or funded in whole or in part by any agency of the federal government.

More on Title V

Title V includes miscellaneous provisions that are intended to apply broadly across all the other titles. Many of these provisions, some of which are found nowhere else in the law itself, were subsequently included and interpreted by the various federal agencies that issued regulations to implement the other titles of the ADA.

Some of the significant provisions of Title V include:

  • The ADA does not invalidate or override any other laws (federal, state, or local) that provide equal or greater protections or remedies for people with disabilities.
  • Exclusion of certain conditions, regardless of whether they are impairments, from the definition of disability. These conditions include transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, other sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs. Homosexuality and bisexuality, since they are not impairments, can not be considered disabilities under the ADA. Additionally, people who are currently engaged in illegal drug use are excluded from protection under the ADA.
  • Retaliation, intimidation, coercion, threats, or interference with people who seek to exercise their rights, or who encourage or aid others to do so, is prohibited. It is important that these provisions also protect people without disabilities if they do things like advocate or testify on behalf of individuals with disabilities.
  • An individual cannot make a claim of “reverse discrimination” under the ADA; in other words, an individual can not seek remedies if they feel they were discriminated against because they do not have a disability.
  • A clause of “severability” states that if any part of the law is found by a court to be unconstitutional, that part is cut from the whole without affecting the remaining parts.
  • Certain federal agencies are directed to develop plans, produce materials, and disseminate information in order to provide technical assistance to entities and individuals who have rights and responsibilities under the law. Covered entities are not excused from compliance, however, if they do not receive technical assistance.
  • Extension of coverage to the U.S. Congress, making it the only branch of the federal government covered by the ADA.

Who’s Protected?

Individuals with Disabilities

The ADA defines an individual with a disability as one who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such a substantially limiting impairment;
  • Is discriminated against because he/she is regarded as having an impairment, unless such impairment is transitory and minor (such as a common cold or simple broken bone).

Whether an individual meets the ADA’s definition of disability is determined on an individual basis. Learn more about the definition of disability and the changes implemented by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

Individuals who are currently engaged in the illegal use of drugs are specifically excluded from protection under the ADA. There are also some disorders, some of which in other contexts might be considered “impairments” but which are excluded from the definition of disability in the ADA; these conditions are transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, other sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.

The ADA also reiterates that homosexuality and bisexuality, since they are not impairments, can not be disabilities for purposes of the ADA.

Associates of Individuals with Disabilities

Individuals who are discriminated against because of their association with people with disabilities are also protected under the ADA. For example, a covered employer can not refuse to hire an individual because her child has cerebral palsy, or fire a worker who volunteers at an agency that serves people with HIV/AIDS. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides guidance on the association provision in the context of employment.

The ADA’s association provision also applies under Title II (state and local government programs and services) and Title III (public accommodations). For example, a state park or a private movie theater can not refuse to admit both an individual with a disability who is using a service animal and the individual’s friend.

History of the ADA

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gave rise to other civil rights movements, most notably the Women's Rights Movement and the Disability Rights Movement. While minorities and women were protected by civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress during the 1960s, the rights of people with disabilities were not protected by federal legislation until much later.

Three major pieces of civil rights legislation were passed by the United States Congress during the 1960s. These three major pieces of civil rights legislation are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which covers fair housing for minorities.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was broad in scope and covered those receiving federal funds, employers, and places of public accommodation such as bus stations, restrooms, and lunch counters. It prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin.

However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not protect people with disabilities. Discrimination against people with disabilities would not be addressed until 1973 when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became law, and later still in 1990 when the ADA was passed.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects the rights of minorities to vote in elections.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 includes Title VIII which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and sex in the sale and rental of housing. The Fair Housing Act, like the Civil Rights Act of 1965, did not protect people with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act was amended in 1988 to add two new classes, people with disabilities and families with children.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federal programs and by recipients of federal financial assistance. But Section 504 did not protect people with disabilities from discrimination in many employment situations or public accommodations in the private sector. It took the ADA to address these areas not covered by Section 504.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, requires that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Public schools have obligations to students with disabilities under IDEA and the ADA. Public schools are local government agencies and under the ADA, they have obligations to students with disabilities who qualify for services under IDEA and also to other students with disabilities, employees, parents and members of the public who have disabilities.

Find more resources on disability history in our resources for youth with disabilities section.

Youth with Disabilities: Disability History

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: The Emancipation Proclamation for the Disabled

A group of seventh grade students from Grisham Middle School in Austin, Texas, created this site for the National History Day competition; they won first place in their region and second place at the national level.

Archive ADA

This site serves as a comprehensive, online archive of documents related to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). You can find the text of the law, legislative history, congressional hearings, Supreme Court cases, federal regulations, and other materials.

"The Disability Rights Movement"

This virtual exhibit is presented by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

"Parallels in Time: A History of Developmental Disabilities"

The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities offers this history lesson, which looks at the experiences of people with disabilities from ancient through modern times. "Parallels in Time Part 2" focuses on the period from 1950 through 2005.

Museum of Disability History

This extensive virtual museum was developed in cooperation between People Inc. and the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation. It features sections on disability in the media, society, and medicine.

Disability Social History Project (DSHP)

DSHP is a participatory community history project.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

This virtual exhibit, based on a New York State Museum exhibit, chronicles the lives and experiences of residents of the Willard Psychiatric Center.

American Eugenics Movement Image Archive

This collection of materials chronicles the eugenics movement in America, which sought to eliminate "genetically unfit" people from the population.

A People’s History of the Independent Living Movement

This monograph, by Chava Willig Levy, was published by the Research and Training Center on Independent Living (RTC/lL) at the University of Kansas.

ADA Anniversary

Pledge Your Support for the ADA

PLEDGE ON!Join the hundreds of individuals, organizations, and government agencies across the country who have pledged their support for the ADA! Become a part of the nationwide celebration of 25 years of one of the world's most historic civil rights laws. PLEDGE ON!

The ADA Legacy Project

The ADA Legacy Project seeks to preserve the history of the disability rights movement, celebrate its milestones, and educate future generations.

The project is involved in a number of initiatives related to the 25th anniversary of the ADA, including:

  • The ADA Legacy Bus Tour, which rolled across the country raising awareness and building excitement, leading to a whirlwind of activities in our region surrounding the "big day" on July 26
  • The Official ADA25 Publication, Equal Access, Equal Opportunity, featuring great articles on the ADA – past, present, and future – information on anniversary celebrations and events, messages from well-wishers such as President George H.W. Bush, and much, much more!

Celebrating the ADA!

The ADA National Network celebrates the Americans with Disabilities Act throughout the year! While much progress has been made, much remains to be done. Please help us honor this landmark civil rights legislation!

ADA Scrapbook

"Turn the page" and take a stroll down memory lane. Watch a video of the signing of the ADA, read some of the stories and remembrances from the first 25 years of the ADA, and learn more about its background and history.

Disability Rights ARE Civil Rights