Law Enforcement and the ADA

Volume 20
Number 1

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.

Questions and Answers

Here is a sample of questions related to the justice system we’ve received in our Center.

Are police officers trained in how to handle people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness, so they will understand what behavior might be due to a disability?

Many law enforcement officers and other first responders receive training on disability issues, and many law enforcement agencies have policies and procedures for officers to follow in certain situations, such as when responding to a call for help from an individual known or thought to be experiencing a mental health crisis.

While there is no specific requirement in the ADA or its regulations for law enforcement officers to be trained on disability issues, it’s certainly a good practice that can help ensure compliance and reduce risks for both officers and citizens. The Department of Justice, in its analysis of the original Title II rule published in 1991, noted that “ … in many cases, lack of training leads to discriminatory practices, even when the policies in place are nondiscriminatory.”

There are resources available to help law enforcement agencies plan, deliver, or obtain training on the ADA and disability issues, including, of course, our Mid-Atlantic ADA Center and the ADA National Network.

Additionally, the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) is a national clearinghouse for information and training related to people with disabilities, especially people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as victims, witnesses, suspects, or offenders within the criminal justice system. NCCJD offers trainings such as webinars, training materials, and publications for individuals with disabilities, family members and advocates, service providers, attorneys and other legal professionals, and professionals in the fields of law enforcement and corrections.

I have a disability that causes my hands to shake. I am afraid that if I get pulled over while driving, the officer will assume I have been drinking. What are my rights in this situation? 

Even routine traffic stops can be fraught with anxiety, for officers and citizens alike. Many people with various types of disabilities are concerned that the effects of their conditions will be misinterpreted, and unfortunately, these concerns are not entirely unfounded. Many encounters between law enforcement officers and citizens are conducted safely and successfully, but people with disabilities have experienced arrest, restraint, injury, and even death as a direct or indirect result of their conditions.

Individuals may want to explain if they have disabilities that cause trembling, slurred speech, unsteady gait, or other issues that might raise concern for an officer. If the officer intends to test for alcohol or other driving impairment, an individual who knows he or she will not be able to perform standard field sobriety tests (walking a straight line, standing on one leg, etc.) can request a chemical test (blood, breath, or urine), which will usually require transportation to a facility but will produce a more accurate and reliable result.

Again, training for officers on disability issues can help them interact effectively with people with disabilities.

I am deaf and use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate; can I ask for an interpreter if I am in a situation where I could be arrested? What if I am in jail or prison for an extended period of time? I was told it would be too expensive to provide interpreters. 

Public entities are required to ensure effective communication by providing “auxiliary aids and services” when necessary (this includes sign language interpreter services, as well as other devices or methods of communicating with people with hearing, vision, and speech disabilities). These requirements are essentially the same in any setting, including police interactions, detainment, and incarceration.

These obligations are likewise subject to the same limitations as in other settings; aids and services do not have to be provided if they would result in a “fundamental alteration” of a program, service, or activity, or in an “undue burden.” An undue burden is a significant difficulty or expense, taking into account all the resources available to the department, agency, or program.

However, the circumstances and practical issues that can arise in law enforcement situations and incarceration can present unique challenges and limitations. Law enforcement officers do not have to set aside legitimate safety concerns or postpone actions (including arrests) that are clearly warranted. If an individual who is deaf is arrested in an urgent situation, an interpreter may be summoned to the station to facilitate booking, informing the suspect of his or her rights, interrogations, etc.

There are situations, even in law enforcement, when an interpreter may not even be needed for effective communication. For example, issuing a routine speeding ticket is often accomplished effectively through the exchange of written notes. But other situations, including many that involve complex, lengthy, and important issues, such as interrogations, medical assessments and services, rehabilitative classes, and counseling, just to name a few, will likely require interpreter services for a person whose primary language is ASL.

If I have to go to state court, do my rights under the ADA still apply?

Absolutely. State and local government courts are covered by the ADA just like all other programs and activities of states, counties, cities, townships, boroughs, etc. In fact, in Tennessee v Lane, a case that challenged the constitutionality of Title II, the Supreme Court called access to the courts a “fundamental right.”

I get regular treatment for my disability and I can’t be in court on the day/time scheduled; can I ask to have that rescheduled?

Scheduling adjustments are examples of “reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures” that may be needed to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Individuals can always make requests, but whether granting requests is “reasonable” may depend on a number of factors. Simple schedule changes are often easily accommodated, and most courts routinely grant requests for schedule changes for reasons other than disability.

Many court systems have an established procedure for disability-related requests, often handled by the system’s “ADA Coordinator” (an employee designated to manage ADA compliance issues).

Do ADA rights still apply to people in jail?

Yes, the ADA covers state and local jails and prisons, and protects prisoners with disabilities. The Supreme Court, in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v Yeskey, rejected Pennsylvania’s arguments that the application of Title II to state prisons was inappropriate. The court found the broad language of Title II to “unambiguously” extend protections to prison inmates.

Writing in the recent case of Pierce v District of Columbia the judge explained that “[i]ncarceration inherently involves the relinquishment of many privileges; however, prisoners still retain certain civil rights, including protections against disability discrimination.” Prisoners with disabilities should not be denied access to facilities or activities, or subjected to more severe punishment or less favorable conditions than inmates without disabilities whose circumstances are similar.

Will I be permitted to keep and use my mobility device or other aids, such as canes or braces, in jail or prison?

In many cases individuals will be able to keep their personal assistive devices during arrest procedures or while they are in jails or prisons. Modifications in policies or procedures may sometimes be needed to safeguard devices from theft or abuse, and to ensure that devices are not used as weapons. When devices cannot be allowed in certain settings or at certain times where there are valid safety and security issues, law enforcement and corrections agencies may need to provide alternatives (possibly including personal assistance) so that detainees and inmates are able to access facilities and participate in activities.

What if I develop a disability while incarcerated? Is a prison responsible for providing equipment needed for my disability (hearing aids, wheelchairs, etc.?) How do prisons handle people with severe food allergies?

While most entities covered by the ADA are not generally required to provide devices or services of a personal nature to people with disabilities, things are different in jails and prisons. It is a well-established legal principle that when a public entity takes custody of an individual, including confining a person against his will, the public entity has a duty to provide for his safety and general well-being. All detainees and inmates must be provided with the health care they need, and related devices and services are often part of that. Inmates with disabilities may need to be provided with medication, treatment, equipment, devices, and medical supplies. Likewise, medical dietary needs must be met for individuals with severe allergies, diabetes, and other conditions.

Again, alternatives, along with modifications in policies or practices, may sometimes be needed to ensure safety and security are not compromised.

What can I do if I think my rights have been violated by a police department, a court, or a prison?

All entities covered by Title II of the ADA, if they employ at least 50 people, are required to designate at least one employee to coordinate ADA compliance efforts, and to establish a grievance procedure to resolve complaints. These requirements, therefore, apply to all but the smallest public entities. This creates an option for addressing problems within the agencies.

Complaints alleging violations of the ADA can be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice against any state or local government police department or other law enforcement agency, court system, jail, or prison.

Individuals can also bring private lawsuits against state or local government agencies, although there are limitations on the types of damages that can be obtained. It should be noted that some cases that have been brought by prisoners have alleged not only violations of the ADA, but violations of their basic constitutional rights as well (the right to due process under the law, or the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment).

The contents of this newsletter were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0007).  NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this newsletter do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2016 TransCen, Inc.