Focal Point

Law Enforcement and the ADA

scales of justiceState and local government police forces, court systems, and detention and correctional facilities and programs are all addressed by Title II of the ADA. Individuals with disabilities are entitled to the full range of protections afforded by the ADA when they are subject to these programs and participate in related activities.

While these activities and programs can involve distinct considerations for security and safety, the general principles of ensuring equal opportunities still hold sway. People who have hearing, vision, and speech disabilities are entitled to effective communication. Reasonable modifications in policies and procedures may be needed to make participation possible for individuals with a wide variety of disabilities and health conditions. Accessible facilities are needed for people with physical disabilities.

Police Agencies

Our local police officers, the front line of the criminal justice system, will interact with many of us at one time or another in our lives. We may be victims of a crime, witnesses, complainants, suspects, or offenders.

Law enforcement officers have challenging jobs, to say the least, but they must be prepared to respond to and interact with everyone, and that includes people with disabilities. Officers may need to communicate with a suspect or witness who is deaf, arrest and transport an individual who uses a wheelchair, respond to an individual experiencing a psychiatric crisis, or assist a crime victim with an intellectual disability.


Many of us will need to go to court as plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, witnesses, jurors, members of the media, or simply as spectators interested in proceedings that are open to the public. Individuals with disabilities have the right to participate in our judicial system just as everyone else does.

gavel atop law booksCourt facilities, even newly constructed ones, present specific design challenges. Traditional courtroom design has relied on raised and lowered levels to create physical and psychological separations between various parties, define their roles, and maintain lines of sight needed (such as between jurors and witnesses). However, standards require access to all areas that may be used by the public, including witnesses, jurors, plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, and spectators.

Where seating is provided for spectators, accessible seating locations must be included for wheelchair users and others with disabilities who may need these spaces. A courtroom is, after all, a type of public assembly area. (Raised employee areas within courtrooms, including judges’ benches, can be designed to be “adaptable,” with sufficient space and/or wiring to allow future installation of a means of vertical access, such as a ramp or platform lift.)

Additionally, all courtrooms, regardless of whether they are equipped with public address systems, must have assistive listening systems available for the use of individuals who are hard of hearing.

Although some modern courtrooms are designed to eliminate at least some of the traditional raised and lowered areas, creative design solutions can preserve these features in many cases, through the incorporation of ramps and/or platform lifts. Access can often be improved even in older facilities.

Detention and Correction

Jails and some other types of detention facilities are generally designed for holding people on a short-term basis, such as those awaiting trial or serving short sentences. These facilities are typically operated by local law enforcement agencies.

jail cellPrisons and other correctional facilities, on the other hand, are usually designed for more long-term confinement. They are typically operated by states (except of course, for federal prisons), and are often more self-contained, with their own medical facilities, food preparation and dining areas, libraries, recreational spaces and equipment, and more amenities for visitors.

Prisons also tend to offer a broad array of programs aimed at rehabilitation, skill building, and preparation for re-entry into society. Classes, work programs, counseling, and religious activities are available. All of these programs and opportunities, whether they are mandatory or optional, need to be accessible to inmates with disabilities who are eligible to participate in them.

An inmate who is blind may need accessible materials or alternatives to participate in a class or have access to library services. An inmate who is deaf or hard of hearing may need interpreter services, the use of an assistive listening device, or other aids or assistance. Modifications may be needed for people with a variety of disabilities, ranging from psychiatric disabilities to chronic health conditions.

Accessible facilities are also needed for individuals with various physical disabilities. Standards establish requirements for minimum numbers of accessible holding and housing cells, including special cells (such as those used for protective custody, disciplinary segregation, detoxification, and medical isolation). Where facilities provide separate areas for different levels of security or different groups (e.g. males and females, or adults and juveniles), accessible cells should be dispersed among the types so inmates can be housed appropriately.

Again, creative design of products and spaces has led to solutions for accessible jail and prison facilities that maintain safety and security.

Standards also call for accessible features in visiting areas, and visitors with disabilities are entitled to reasonable policy modifications and other considerations that enable them to visit their family members and friends.