Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 Featured Image

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a groundbreaking civil rights law. ADA outlaws discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees them equal access to opportunities in employment, education, transportation, and public spaces.

Here are some of the key things the ADA covers:

  • Prohibition of Discrimination: The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, education, transportation, public accommodations and recreation, telecommunications, and all programs and activities run by the government.
  • Reasonable Accommodations: Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities unless doing so would be an undue hardship. This may include providing assistive devices, modifying work schedules, or allowing flexible leave.
  • Accessibility Standards: The ADA also sets accessibility standards for buildings and other facilities to ensure people with disabilities can access and use them. This includes things like ramps, elevators, and accessible restrooms.

II. History

A. Historical Context: The Fight for Disability Rights in the US

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 marked a watershed moment in the fight for equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities in the United States. However, decades of activism and struggle paved the way for the ADA.

1. Pre-ADA Struggles and Legislation

For most of American history, people with disabilities faced widespread discrimination and segregation. Limited access to education, employment, and public spaces was a harsh reality. Early efforts for change came from disability-specific advocacy groups, such as those for people who were deaf or blind. However, a more unified disability rights movement emerged in the mid-20th Century.

The passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 marked a significant step forward. This federal law prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal funding. However, its reach was limited, and enforcement was weak.

2. The Rise of the Disability Rights Movement

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a surge in disability rights activism. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, people with disabilities organized protests, lobbied Congress, and engaged in civil disobedience to raise awareness about discrimination. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which applied to federally funded programs, became a rallying point. Activists demanded its full and fair enforcement.

A pivotal moment came in 1977 with the Section 504 sit-in. Disabled activists occupied a federal building in San Francisco for 28 days, demanding stronger law enforcement. This bold action captured national attention and galvanized the movement.

Also, read:

B. The Enactment of the ADA

1. Legislative Process and Key Figures

The success of the disability rights movement paved the way for the ADA. Advocates like Judy Heumann, Justin Dart, and Robert Dole played crucial roles in drafting and lobbying for the legislation. Bipartisan support emerged in Congress, recognizing the need for comprehensive civil rights protections for people with disabilities.

President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990. It was a landmark achievement, extending civil rights protections to a historically marginalized population.

2. Overview of the ADA’s Goals and Significance

The ADA’s primary goal was to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. It aimed to ensure equal opportunities in employment, education, transportation, communication, and access to public and private places. The ADA marked a paradigm shift, recognizing disability as a civil rights issue, not simply a matter of charity.

This comprehensive legislation established a clear legal framework for equal access and participation for people with disabilities.

Also, read:


III. Core Definitions and Concepts

How the ADA Changed the Built World | Crip Camp

The ADA’s effectiveness hinges on its core definitions and concepts. Understanding these elements is crucial for determining who is protected by the law and the scope of those protections.

A. Definition of Disability under the ADA

The ADA provides a specific definition of disability, ensuring its application to those who face significant limitations due to their condition. This definition is not based solely on a medical diagnosis but rather on the functional impact of an impairment. Here are the key components:

1. Physical and Mental Impairments:

The ADA covers a wide range of physical and mental impairments, including:

  • Vision impairments (blindness, low vision)
  • Hearing impairments (deafness, hard of hearing)
  • Mobility impairments (paraplegia, quadriplegia, missing limbs)
  • Speech impairments
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes, cancer, epilepsy)
  • Mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder)

2. Major Life Activities:

The ADA protects individuals whose impairments significantly limit one or more major life activities. These are considered essential activities of daily living, including:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Walking
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Self-care
  • Learning
  • Working

3. Substantially Limits:

The impairment must substantially limit a major life activity to qualify for protection under the ADA. This means the impairment significantly restricts the individual’s ability to perform the activity compared to an average person without the disability. The limitation can be permanent, episodic, or intermittent.

4. Record of Impairment and Regarded As:

The ADA also protects individuals who have a history of a disability (record of impairment) or are perceived by others as having a disability (regarded as) even if they do not meet the strict definition of disability. This protects individuals from discrimination based on misconceptions or past experiences.

B. Reasonable Accommodations

A cornerstone of the ADA is the concept of reasonable accommodations. Employers and public entities must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

1. Definition and Employer Obligations:

A reasonable accommodation is any change or adjustment to a job, service, program, or activity that enables a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy equal opportunities. Examples can include:

  • Modifying job duties or equipment
  • Providing assistive technology
  • Adjusting break schedules
  • Offering flexible work arrangements
  • Providing readers or interpreters

Employers must engage in an interactive process with the employee to identify and implement effective, reasonable accommodations.

2. Examples of Reasonable Accommodations:

The nature of reasonable accommodations will vary depending on the specific needs of the individual and the job or situation. Here are some common examples:

  • For an employee with a mobility impairment:  a raised desk, ergonomic keyboard, or accessible parking space.
  • For an employee with a visual impairment:  screen-reading software, audio recordings of training materials, or Braille documents.
  • For a customer with a hearing impairment:  assistive listening devices, sign language interpreters, or real-time captioning.

3. Undue Hardship and Limits of Accommodation:

Employers are not required to provide accommodations that would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business. Undue hardship is a significant difficulty or expense related to the size of the business.

Also, read:


IV. Titles of the ADA: A Breakdown of Protections

The ADA is a comprehensive law with five distinct titles, each addressing specific areas where discrimination against individuals with disabilities can occur. This section provides a breakdown of the key protections offered under each title.

A. Title I: Employment

Title I prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment, from recruitment and hiring to promotion, termination, and benefits.

  • Nondiscrimination in Hiring, Promotion, and Termination: Employers cannot make employment decisions based on disability or perceived disability. They must assess qualifications based on job requirements and not stereotypes.
  • Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace: As discussed earlier, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities unless doing so poses undue hardship. This ensures individuals with disabilities can perform the essential functions of their jobs.
  • Medical Examinations and Inquiries: Employers can only conduct medical examinations or inquiries related to a disability if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.
  • Enforcement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): The EEOC enforces Title I. Individuals who believe they have been discriminated against in employment can file a complaint with the EEOC.

B. Title II: Public Entities

Title II prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by state and local government agencies. This includes all programs, services, and activities offered by these entities.

  • Nondiscrimination by State and Local Government Agencies: Government agencies must ensure their programs and services are accessible to individuals with disabilities. This may involve modifying policies, providing auxiliary aids, or restructuring communication methods.
  • Program Accessibility Requirements: Public entities must make their programs accessible to individuals with disabilities through various means, such as providing accessible facilities, documents, and communication methods.
  • Effective Communication with Individuals with Disabilities: Government agencies must communicate effectively with individuals with disabilities, which may involve providing qualified interpreters, assistive listening devices, or alternative formats for written materials.
  • Enforcement by the Department of Justice (DOJ): The DOJ enforces Title II. Individuals can file complaints with the DOJ if they believe a public entity has discriminated against them.

C. Title III: Public Accommodations

Title III is a central component of the ADA, ensuring equal access to goods, services, and facilities offered by private businesses and public accommodations. This covers various establishments, including restaurants, hotels, stores, museums, transportation services, and recreational facilities.

  • Equal Access to Goods, Services, and Facilities: Businesses and public accommodations must remove barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from accessing their goods, services, and facilities. This can involve modifications to physical spaces, providing auxiliary aids, or offering alternative service delivery methods.
  • Specific Requirements for Businesses and Public Places: Title III outlines requirements for different types of businesses and public places. This includes ensuring accessible parking spaces, ramps, elevators, restrooms, and signage.
  • Auxiliary Aids and Services: Businesses may need to provide auxiliary aids and services, such as sign language interpreters, assistive listening devices, or Braille documents, to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities.
  • Enforcement by the DOJ:  Similar to Title II, the DOJ enforces Title III. Individuals who believe a public accommodation has discriminated against them can file complaints with the DOJ.

D. Title IV: Telecommunications

Title IV addresses communication accessibility for individuals with hearing and speech disabilities. It ensures equal access to the telephone system and other telecommunications services.

  • Relay Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals: This crucial provision mandates establishing a nationwide system of telecommunications relay services (TRS). These services allow individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate by phone using a trained intermediary. Depending on the user’s needs, this intermediary can relay calls through sign language interpreters, captioned text, or other methods.
  • Closed Captioning for Public Service Announcements:  Title IV requires that federally funded public service announcements (PSAs) be closed-captioned. This ensures individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing can access important public information broadcasted on television.
  • Enforcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for enforcing Title IV. This includes overseeing the operation of TRS providers and ensuring compliance with closed captioning requirements.

E. Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

Title V includes various provisions that complement and strengthen the overall impact of the ADA.

  • Prohibition of Retaliation and Coercion: It is illegal to retaliate against or coerce an individual with a disability for exercising their rights under the ADA. This protects individuals from being punished for filing a complaint or requesting accommodations.
  • Integration of ADA with Other Laws: The ADA is not meant to replace existing disability rights laws but to strengthen them. Title V clarifies that the ADA works with other nondiscrimination laws, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
  • Architectural Accessibility Standards: While not a specific mandate, Title V establishes a process for developing and adopting accessibility standards for newly constructed and altered buildings. These standards ensure new buildings are designed to be accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.

Also, read:


V. Impact of the ADA

The ADA has had a profound impact on the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities. It has dismantled significant barriers and opened doors to greater societal opportunities and participation. Here’s a closer look at some key areas of positive change:

A. Increased Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Before the ADA, individuals with disabilities faced widespread discrimination in employment. The law’s emphasis on reasonable accommodations has significantly improved this situation. People with disabilities can now compete for a wider range of jobs, leading to increased employment rates and greater financial independence.

B. Improved Accessibility in Public Spaces

The ADA has spurred significant improvements in the accessibility of public spaces like buildings, transportation systems, and recreational facilities. This includes ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms, and braille signage. These changes have allowed people with disabilities to participate more fully in everyday activities, fostering greater independence and social inclusion.

C. Enhanced Communication and Participation

The ADA’s requirements for effective communication have improved access to information and services for individuals with disabilities. Provisions for sign language interpreters, assistive listening devices, and alternative format documents have broken down communication barriers, enabling people with disabilities to participate more actively in education, government programs, and community life.

D. Ongoing Challenges and Areas for Improvement

Despite the significant progress made, challenges remain. Here are some ongoing areas of concern:

  • Enforcement: Enforcing the ADA can be complex, and some individuals may face difficulties navigating the complaint system.
  • Undue Hardship: Undue hardship can be a grey area, leading to potential disputes between employers or businesses and individuals with disabilities regarding accommodations.
  • Employment: While employment opportunities have increased, people with disabilities may still face unconscious bias or difficulty finding employers willing to provide necessary accommodations.

Addressing these challenges involves continued efforts in:

  • Public education and awareness: Raising awareness about the ADA and its benefits for both individuals with disabilities and society at large.
  • Funding and resources: Providing adequate resources to enforce the ADA and support the development of accessible technologies and services.
  • Technological advancements: Embracing technological advancements to create even more inclusive and accessible experiences for people with disabilities.

The ADA remains a dynamic and evolving law, adapting to new technologies and emerging challenges. Continued advocacy and enforcement are crucial to ensuring its effectiveness in creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

Also, read:


VI. Enforcement Mechanisms

The ADA’s effectiveness hinges on its enforcement mechanisms, ensuring individuals with disabilities have avenues to address discrimination. Here’s a breakdown of the key steps involved:

A. Filing a Complaint with the Appropriate Agency

Depending on the nature of the alleged discrimination, individuals can file complaints with different federal agencies:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): Handles complaints related to employment discrimination under Title I.
  • Department of Justice (DOJ): Enforces Titles II (Public Entities) and III (Public Accommodations), as well as investigating discrimination in transportation services under Title III.
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC): Responsible for enforcing Title IV, which addresses accessibility issues in telecommunications.

Each agency has specific procedures for filing complaints, including online forms, mail-in options, or phone calls.

B. The Investigation Process and Potential Remedies

Once a complaint is filed, the respective agency investigates the allegations. This may involve reviewing documents, interviewing parties, and conducting site visits. The investigation aims to determine if there has been a violation of the ADA.

Potential remedies for individuals who experience discrimination can include:

  • Reaching a settlement: The agency may facilitate a settlement agreement between the individual and the entity accused of discrimination. This agreement may outline steps to address the violation and prevent future occurrences.
  • Conciliation: The agency may attempt conciliation, a process where they mediate between the parties to reach a mutually agreeable resolution.
  • Litigation: If the agency finds reasonable cause to believe a violation occurred and cannot resolve it through settlement or conciliation, they may refer the case for litigation in federal court.

Additionally, the agency may:

  • Issue technical assistance to help entities comply with the ADA.
  • Conduct public education and outreach programs.

C. Litigation and Private Lawsuits under the ADA

Individuals can also file private lawsuits under the ADA in federal court. This option allows them to seek monetary damages, injunctive relief (court order to stop the discrimination), and attorney’s fees. However, filing a private lawsuit can be a complex and costly process.

Here are some important considerations regarding enforcement:

  • Time limits: There are strict time limits for filing complaints with the respective agencies. Missing these deadlines can limit legal options.
  • The burden of proof: The individual filing the complaint generally has the burden of proving discrimination occurred. However, the ADA’s provisions can ease this burden to some extent.
  • Legal representation: While not mandatory, consulting with an attorney experienced in disability rights law can be beneficial for navigating the enforcement process.

VII. The ADA in the 21st Century

The ADA remains a cornerstone of disability rights legislation. However, the 21st Century presents new challenges and opportunities related to technology, emerging issues, and the need for ongoing advocacy.

A. Technological Advancements and Accessibility Needs

The rapid pace of technological advancements presents both opportunities and challenges for accessibility.

  • Opportunities: Technological innovations like voice recognition software, screen readers, and closed captioning apps have allowed greater communication and information access.
  • Challenges: New technologies can introduce new barriers if not designed with accessibility in mind. Websites, mobile apps, and online platforms need to be developed with accessibility standards in place to ensure equal access for individuals with disabilities.

B. Emerging Issues: Employment, Education, and Healthcare

The landscape of work, education, and healthcare is constantly evolving. Here’s how the ADA needs to adapt:

  • Employment: The rise of remote work opportunities can present benefits and challenges. Employers must ensure accessible technology and communication tools are used in remote working environments. Additionally, ensuring reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities in a virtual setting requires clear guidelines.
  • Education: The growing use of online learning platforms necessitates ensuring they are accessible to students with disabilities. This includes providing alternative formats for learning materials and ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies.
  • Healthcare: Technological advancements can create new access barriers if not designed inclusively. Ensuring medical equipment and patient portals are accessible for people with disabilities is crucial for equitable access to healthcare services.

C. The Importance of Continued Advocacy and Education

Despite the progress made, misconceptions and lack of awareness about the ADA and disability rights persist. Here’s why ongoing advocacy and education are vital:

  • Public education: Educating the broader public about the importance of the ADA and the capabilities of people with disabilities fosters a more inclusive society.
  • Employer and business training: Training employers and business owners on their obligations under the ADA ensure they can create accessible workplaces and public spaces.
  • Disability rights advocacy: Advocacy organizations are critical in supporting individuals with disabilities, enforcing the ADA, and advocating for legislative updates to address emerging issues.

D. Looking Ahead:

The ADA is a dynamic document that needs to adapt to the changing needs of people with disabilities in a world shaped by technology and evolving social structures. By embracing technological advancements, addressing emerging challenges, and fostering ongoing education and advocacy, the ADA can continue to be a powerful tool for creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

Also, read:


VIII. Conclusion

The ADA’s legacy is undeniable. It has transformed the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities, dismantling barriers and opening doors to opportunities that were once out of reach. From increased employment opportunities to improved accessibility in public spaces, the ADA has fostered a more inclusive society.

Despite the progress, the fight for disability rights is ongoing. New challenges emerge with advancements in technology and changing social landscapes. However, the spirit of the ADA – ensuring equal opportunity and participation – continues to guide the way. Continued advocacy, education, and enforcement are crucial for realizing the ADA’s full potential in creating a society where everyone can participate, contribute, and thrive.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 Summary

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various aspects of public life. It ensures equal opportunities for employment, public accommodations (like stores and restaurants), transportation, government services, and telecommunications. The ADA mandates reasonable modifications by covered entities to remove barriers and allows individuals with disabilities to use services and participate in activities enjoyed by everyone else. This landmark legislation has empowered people with disabilities, fostering a more inclusive society.


IX. Citation

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, As Amended. (n.d.). ADA.gov. https://www.ada.gov/law-and-regs/ada/


Junaid Khan

Junaid Khan is an expert on harassment laws since 2009. He is a passionate advocate for victims of harassment and works to educate the public about harassment laws and prevention. He is also a sought-after speaker on human resource management, relationships, parenting, and the importance of respecting others.

Junaid Khan has 154 posts and counting. See all posts by Junaid Khan