Your Rights Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on living with a disability in many facets of life, such as employment, public education, public transportation, and accessing public spaces, services, and programs. Several federal agencies enforce these laws in different contexts, including labor regulations, transportation, health care, telecommunications, and housing.

Individuals with disabilities protected under the law include those who experience significant impairment in day-to-day life or are regarded as having a disability. Some disabilities that the ADA recognizes include people who are deaf, blind, have limited or no mobility, or live with a learning disability.

Read on to learn more about the ADA, how it works in particular contexts, and what to do if your disability rights have been violated.

A group of people sitting and facing a person in wheelchair who is leading a work meeting

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What Is the ADA?

The ADA is an expansive addition to American civil rights laws, specifically for people with disabilities to have the same opportunities as other citizens. It prohibits disability discrimination in:

  • All employment
  • State and local government
  • Transportation
  • Telecommunications
  • Commercial spaces

The ADA even includes standards for accessible design so that new structures are constructed, and older ones are modified to enhance accessibility.

Date of Enactment

The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by then-president George H.W. Bush.

Though some previous legislation did include or was amended to include protections for people with disabilities, none were very expansive. This includes the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which only prohibited disability discrimination in places that received federal funding.

Prior to its enactment, the National Council on Disability was formed to establish recommendations to the President and Congress. Between 1986 and 1988, the Council and the HIV/AIDS Commission drafted reports with legislative recommendations, including protecting those with HIV/AIDS as people with disabilities.

Jointly, these recommendations were the basis for the initial draft of the ADA to Congress in 1988. Through further drafts, hearings, consultation with government agencies, grassroots organizing, and advocacy efforts, the bill was finally signed into law.

ADA vs. FMLA

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in many spheres of day-to-day life as a protection of their civil rights. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job protection and continuation of employer-sponsored health insurance for employees of covered employers who take unpaid leave for medical reasons or to take care of a close family member.

Eligibility and Definition of Disability

Any person who meets the definition of disability is protected under the ADA. However, people who are currently using drugs illegally are not covered.

According to the legislation, a person who has a disability is identified as:

  • Having a physical or mental impairment that significantly impacts or limits their ability to engage in major life functions (not all are specifically outlined, but include bodily functions and many daily activities, such as walking and communicating)
  • Having a record of having a physical or mental impairment
  • Being perceived by others to have a physical or mental impairment

The law itself does not outline all disabilities that are covered.

Your Employer and ADA Laws

Title I in the ADA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of disability, including people living with disabilities or those associated with people who have a disability (such as a family member). It applies to private, non-profit, and governmental employers with at least 15 employees.

As a qualified candidate for employment, you must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. Some examples of a reasonable accommodation include:

  • Ensuring work facilities are accessible for people with disabilities
  • Restructuring existing jobs
  • Reassignment to other positions that are vacant
  • Flexible work schedule changes
  • Making changes to or getting equipment, devices, policies, materials, examinations, or hiring professionals who can provide assistance (such as interpreters)

Employers are required to provide these things if they don't create an "undue hardship" (meaning that it would not be feasible, financially or otherwise). An employer does not have to provide reasonable accommodations unless it's requested.

Further, it's unlawful to retaliate against employees who:

  • Oppose discriminatory policies or practices
  • File a disability discrimination charge
  • Are involved in an investigation of a charge

Government Involvement at Local and State Levels

The ADA ensures equal opportunity in accessing and benefiting from public property and services provided to people with disabilities. These services, programs, and property include:

  • Public transportation
  • Public education
  • Health care
  • Social services
  • Courts
  • Voting locations

State and local governments are required to have policies, procedures, and practices that don't discriminate against people with disabilities. The exception is if any modifications to them would fundamentally change programs or services.

The ADA also requires local and state governments to follow accessibility standards for construction of new structures and modifications to existing ones (again, unless doing so would create a substantial burden).

If Your Disability Rights Are Violated

You may file a complaint if you or someone you know has been discriminated against in relation to having a disability. A complaint can be filed against:

  • Offices or programs within the state or local government, such as public schools or hospitals
  • A private business, such as a healthcare provider's office or a hotel

What Qualifies As Discrimination?

Discrimination based on disability occurs when entities that are covered under the ADA (including employers, state and local government, or non-profit organizations) do not afford people with disabilities with equitable opportunities to access programs, services, and employment.

Some examples can include (but aren't limited to):

  • Treating a job applicant differently because they have a disability or are a parent of a child with a disability
  • An employer not providing a reasonable accommodation that doesn't cause an "undue hardship"
  • Denying a promotion to a qualified employee because of their disability
  • Public transportation that doesn't include accessible ride options
  • Public buildings or programs that are not accessible for people with disabilities that exist to serve everyone in a community
  • Employers or customers who make jokes about or gestures toward a person with disabilities

Filing a Complaint

Filing a complaint promptly—as there are time limits in some cases—with the appropriate governmental agency or entity is key. Based on the context or setting of the disability discrimination concern, you may contact:

  • Department of Transportation for complaints regarding travel
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for housing complaints
  • Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) for complaints in an employment setting
  • Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division for all other complaints

Each entity has their own filing process. Most offer several ways to file them including online, by phone, and through the mail.

After a complaint is filed, you should expect follow-up from the Civil Rights Division or a specific federal agency that handles the type of complaint you filed. Possible next steps may include mediation or an investigation, which may result in a lawsuit or settlement.

Resources

To learn more about disability rights, file a complaint, or seek consultation, you may find these resources helpful:

  • ADA.gov is a government website outlining information about the law and your rights, including how to file a complaint.
  • National Disability Rights Network provides legally-based advocacy for people who have disabilities and may be seeking consultation.
  • ADA National Network provides consultation and technical assistance to inform how the law is implemented by employers, governments, disability organizations, and businesses.

Other Ways to Ensure Accessibility Rights

Understanding the law and how to implement it is a proactive way to ensure equal opportunity for people with disabilities.

Seeking out assistance and training can help you better understand how the law sets out regulations to guide planning and implementation of programs, projects, and services. For example, the EEOC provides technical assistance to assist employers with compliance and help people with disabilities better understand their rights.

Summary

The ADA, enacted in 1990, ensures that people with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities in many facets of American life. The law prohibits discrimination in employment, transportation, telecommunications, commercial spaces, and state and local government. It also includes accessibility design standards for new buildings and modifications to existing structures.

Those who experience discrimination based on disability can file a complaint to take action and seek a remedy. With which federal agency you file the complaint will depend on the nature of the issue. There are a number of resources available to learn more about the law, how to implement it, and disability rights.

A Word From Verywell

Americans with disabilities have a right to the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. Regardless of your disability status, we all have a responsibility to advocate for the equal rights of people living with disabilities in all facets of daily life. Knowing more about the law and disability rights can help you effectively advocate for accessible spaces and policies in your community and your place of employment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do you legally have to prove your disability to employers?

    No. Employers can't ask if you have a disability, what it is, or its severity. An employer can ask if and how you are able to perform the essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodations. A medical exam that may reveal your disability could be allowed (though records must be kept confidential) if it's voluntary or all employees must undergo the exam.

  • Which disabilities aren’t covered under the ADA?

    The ADA does not outline all applicable disabilities. It describes disability in terms of limits to your ability to perform daily life functions, having a documented disability, or being regarded as having a disability. People who currently use drugs illegally are not covered under the ADA.

  • Do ADA laws offer job security?

    No. The ADA ensures equal opportunity employment for people with disabilities. It prohibits disability discrimination in employment but doesn't ensure job security. You must be qualified for the job and able to perform its essential functions with or without reasonable accommodations.

  • Do you have to have a documented disability to qualify?

    You can qualify if you have a documented disability. Under the ADA definition, you may also qualify if you have a disability that significantly limits your ability to perform daily functions (such as walking or breathing), or are regarded as having a disability.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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