Disability Discrimination Basics

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and more.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in many aspects of daily life. The ADA also requires reasonable accommodations to allow those with disabilities to work, access services, use public transportation, and more. 

ADA Coverage

The ADA prohibits discrimination in the following areas:

  • Title IEmployment. Employers may not discriminate against qualified applicants and employees with disabilities. Employers also must provide reasonable accommodations in all aspects of employment to allow people with disabilities to do their jobs. This part of the law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 
  • Title II: Public services. People with disabilities cannot be denied participation in public service programs or activities that are available to people without disabilities. Complaints under this title are made to the Justice Department.
  • Title IIIPublic accommodations. All new construction must be accessible to people with disabilities. Complaints under this title are made to the Justice Department.
  • Title IV: Telecommunications. Telecommunication companies must have a telephone relay service for people who use telecommunications devices for the deaf (TTYs) or similar devices. The Federal Communications Commission enforces this part of the law.
  • Title V: Miscellaneous. This title includes a provision prohibiting coercing, threatening, or retaliating against individuals with disabilities or those assisting them in asserting their rights under the ADA. This title also authorizes the payment of attorney’s fees for successful litigants.

The ADA Amendments Act

In the two-plus decades since the ADA was passed, there has been a lot of litigation over Title I, the employment provisions of the law. Employees and applicants lost many of these lawsuits, often because courts had interpreted the term "disability" so narrowly that many people with serious impairments were not protected by the law.

To remedy this problem, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act in 2008. This law expresses Congress's intent that the ADA should be interpreted broadly, to offer protection to as many people as possible. Congress stated that the focus of ADA lawsuits should not be on whether the applicant or employee has a disability, but instead on whether the employer committed illegal discrimination. 

What Is a Disability?

As amended by the ADA Amendments Act, the ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as walking, breathing, seeing, caring for oneself, learning, sleeping, and so on. The proper functioning of major bodily systems are also major life activities. For example, someone whose impairment disrupts normal cell growth, or the proper functioning of the endocrine, neurological, or gastrointestinal system, has a disability under the law, even if that person doesn't appear to be impaired. 

The ADA also protects those with a history of disability and those who are regarded by their employer as having a disability, even if the employer is incorrect. These provisions protect employees and applicants against discrimination based on stereotypes or misconceived notions about people with disabilities. For example, someone with a mild speech impediment may not have a disability, if that person is able to speak clearly and be understood. However, if an employer refused to hire that person based on the mistaken belief that the applicant would not be able to communicate effectively with others, that would be illegal disability discrimination. Even though the applicant didn't have an actual disability, the employer acted as though the applicant did.

Getting Legal Help

If you think you have been discriminated against because of your disability, consult a lawyer who specializes in disability law. A lawyer can assess the strength of your case and help you decide the best strategy for moving forward.