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Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability just as other civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. The ADA guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs.

The ADA Protects People with Disabilities

A person with a disability is someone who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  • has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or
  • is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn).

If a person falls into any of these categories, the ADA protects them. Because the ADA is a law, and not a benefit program, you do not need to apply for coverage.

What does substantially limits mean?

The term “substantially limits” is interpreted broadly and is not meant to be a demanding standard. But not every condition will meet this standard. An example of a condition that is not substantially limiting is a mild allergy to pollen.

What does major life activities mean?

Major life activities are the kind of activities that you do every day, including your body’s own internal processes. There are many major life activities in addition to the examples listed here. Some examples include:

  • Actions like eating, sleeping, speaking, and breathing
  • Movements like walking, standing, lifting, and bending
  • Cognitive functions like thinking and concentrating
  • Sensory functions like seeing and hearing
  • Tasks like working, reading, learning, and communicating
  • The operation of major bodily functions like circulation, reproduction, and individual organs

Examples of Disabilities

There is a wide variety of disabilities, and the ADA regulations do not list all of them. Some disabilities are visible and some are not. Some examples of disabilities include:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • HIV
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness or hearing loss
  • Blindness or low vision
  • Epilepsy
  • Mobility disabilities such as those requiring the use of a wheelchair, walker, or cane
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Traumatic brain injury

The ADA covers many other disabilities not listed here.

The ADA Prohibits Disability Discrimination in Many Areas of Life

To prevent discrimination against people with disabilities, the ADA sets out requirements that apply to many of the situations you encounter in everyday life. Employers, state and local governments, businesses that are open to the public, commercial facilities, transportation providers, and telecommunication companies all have to follow the requirements of the ADA.

The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability.

Under the ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of their disability.

For example, a fitness center could not exclude a person who uses a wheelchair from a workout class because they cannot do all of the exercises in the same way.

However, a local rec center might only be open to people who live in the surrounding zip code. If the rec center refused access to a person with epilepsy because that person lived in a different zip code, that would not be a violation of the ADA because the rec center would not be discriminating on the basis of the person’s disability.

The ADA is broken up into five different sections, which are called titles. Different titles set out the requirements for different kinds of organizations. For example, Title I of the ADA covers requirements for employers, and Title II covers requirements for state and local governments. You can find the relevant title of the ADA noted next to each type of organization below.

Section of the ADA: Title I

Applies to: employers that have 15 or more employees, including state/local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions.

General requirement: Employers must provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from the employment-related opportunities available to others. This includes things like recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, and social activities.

The ADA includes specific requirements for employers to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to employment. Learn more about these requirements on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance for employers.

How to file a complaint: File a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Section of the ADA: Title II, Subtitle A

Applies to: all services, programs, and activities of state and local governments.

Examples of state and local government activities include:

  • Public education
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Health care
  • Social services
  • Courts
  • Voting
  • Emergency services
  • Town meetings

The ADA applies to state and local governments even if:

  • the state or local government is small or
  • they receive money from the federal government.

General requirement: State and local governments must provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities.

The ADA contains specific requirements for state and local governments to ensure equal access for people with disabilities. Learn about these requirements in the State and Local Government Primer.

How to file a complaint: File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Section of the ADA: Title II, Subtitle B

Applies to: public transit systems.

General requirement: Public transit systems must provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their services.

Note: Private transit systems are also covered by the ADA. For more information, see the section Businesses that are open to the public below.

How to file a complaint: File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice or with the Federal Transit Administration.

Section of the ADA: Title III

Applies to:

  • Businesses and nonprofits serving the public.
    Examples of businesses and nonprofits include:

    • Restaurants
    • Hotels
    • Retail stores
    • Movie theaters
    • Private schools (including housing)
    • Doctors’ offices and hospitals
    • Day care centers
    • Gyms
    • Organizations offering courses or examinations
  • Privately operated transit.
    Examples of privately operated transit include:

    • Taxis
    • Intercity and charter buses
    • Hotel shuttles
    • Airport shuttles
  • Commercial facilities (need only comply with requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design).
    Examples of commercial facilities include:

    • Office buildings
    • Warehouses
    • Factories

General requirement: Businesses must provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to access the goods or services that they offer.

The ADA contains specific requirements for businesses that are open to the public. Learn more about these requirements: ADA Primer for Small Businesses.

How to file a complaint: File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Section of the ADA: Title IV

Applies to: telecommunication companies.

General requirement: Telephone companies must provide services to allow callers with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate.

How to file a complaint: Contact the Telecommunications Relay Services point of contact for your state through the Federal Communications Commission.

Section of the ADA: Title V

The ADA also includes other requirements for how to implement the law. Examples of these requirements include:

  • Prohibiting retaliation against a person who has asserted their rights under the ADA
  • Stating that a person with a disability is not required to accept an aid or accommodation if they do not want to
  • Authorizing courts to award attorneys’ fees to the winning party in a lawsuit under the ADA
  • Directing certain federal agencies to issue guidance explaining the law

Other Disability Rights Laws

Although the ADA applies to many areas of life, it does not cover everything. In some situations, disability discrimination is prohibited by laws other than the ADA.

While the ADA applies to certain types of housing (e.g., housing at private and public universities and public housing programs), the Fair Housing Act applies to many types of housing, both public and privately owned, including housing covered by the ADA.

Disability discrimination during air travel is prohibited by the Air Carriers Access Act.

Religious organizations are exempt from the requirements of Title III of the ADA. For information about how the ADA’s employment obligations apply to religious entities, visit the EEOC’s website. Additionally, religious groups or organizations may still have to comply with state/local building codes or other laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.

Federal Agencies’ Roles

Many federal agencies are responsible for enforcing the ADA and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. These agencies receive complaints, conduct investigations, and issue regulations and guidance to explain the law.

Learn more about these agencies and the laws that they implement: