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The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Brief Overview

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Its overall purpose is to make American Society more accessible to people with disabilities. In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was passed. Its purpose is to broaden the definition of disability, which had been narrowed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The ADA is divided into five titles:

1. Employment (Title I)
Title I requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees with disabilities and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all aspects of employment. Reasonable accommodation includes, for example, restructuring jobs, making work-sites and workstations accessible, modifying schedules, providing services such as interpreters, and modifying equipment and policies. Title I also regulates medical examinations and inquires. For more information, see http://AskJAN.org/links/adalinks.htm#I
2. Public Services (Title II)
Under Title II, public services (which include state and local government agencies, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and other commuter authorities) cannot deny services to people with disabilities or deny participation in programs or activities that are available to people without disabilities. In addition, public transportation systems, such as public transit buses, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For more information, see http://AskJAN.org/links/adalinks.htm#II
3. Public Accommodations (Title III)
Public accommodations include facilities such as restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, retail stores, etc., as well as privately owned transportation systems. Title III requires that all new construction and modifications must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For existing facilities, barriers to services must be removed if readily achievable. For more information, see http://AskJAN.org/links/adalinks.htm#III
4. Telecommunications (Title IV)
Telecommunications companies offering telephone service to the general public must have telephone relay service to individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTYs) or similar devices.
5. Miscellaneous (Title V)
This title includes a provision prohibiting either (a) coercing or threatening or (b) retaliating against individuals with disabilities or those attempting to aid people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA.

The ADA's protection applies primarily, but not exclusively, to individuals who meet the ADA's definition of disability. An individual has a disability if:

  1. He or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities;
  2. He or she has a record of such an impairment; or
  3. He or she is regarded as having such an impairment.

As mentioned above, the ADA's definition of disability was broadened by the ADAAA, which went into effect in January 2009. For more information, see Accommodation and Compliance Series: The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 at http://AskJAN.org/bulletins/adaaa1.htm

Other individuals who are protected in certain circumstances include 1) those, such as parents, who have an association with an individual known to have a disability, and 2) those who are coerced or subjected to retaliation for assisting people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA.

While the employment provisions of the ADA apply to employers of fifteen employees or more, its public accommodations provisions apply to all sizes of business, regardless of number of employees. State and local governments are covered regardless of size.

Updated: July 26, 2012

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