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ADA Structure

The ADA consists of five titles that outline required access and accommodations:

  • Title I pertains to employers with 15 or more workers, labor organizations and employment agencies. It is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  • Title II applies to public entities, such as state and local government, as well as public transportation systems. It is employed by the Department of Justice, Department of Transportation or other federal agencies, depending on the nature of the entity.
  • Title III applies to private sector places where people meet or where business is conducted, known as public accommodations. It is enforced by the Department of Justice.
  • Title IV applies to providers of telecommunications and information technology services. It is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission.
  • Title V contains supplemental provisions that clarify that both states and Congress are covered by all provisions of the ADA. It also provides for recovery of legal fees, establishes a mechanism for technical assistance and instructs federal agencies required to implement the act. Additionally, Title V includes a provision prohibiting either (a) coercing or threatening or (b) retaliating against the disabled or those attempting to aid people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA.

Historical Context of the ADA

The following information is excerpted from the Core Curriculum developed by Adaptive Environments, Inc. for NIDRR.

Please note: The ADA has been amended several times since its passage in 1990 and is undergoing continuous interpretation in the court systems. Contact your DBTAC: ADA Center at (800) 949-4232 (V/TTY) for the most up-to-date information.

Origins of Disability Rights Law

The legal and political roots of the ADA are deep in the civil rights era of the 1960s. In terms of formal legal precedent, the ADA has been described as, "... an amalgam of two great civil rights statutes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ... The ADA generally uses the framework of titles II and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for coverage and enforcement ... and the terms and concepts of Section 504 ... for what constitutes discrimination."

The passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 established the critical bridge between disability and antidiscrimination policy and law. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability towards otherwise qualified people with disabilities by recipients of federal financial assistance. The statutory language of Section 504 is based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but is much narrower in its coverage. Unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 does not mandate compliance with nondiscrimination requirements by employers or public accommodations in the private sector. It also does not reach publicly funded programs that do not receive federal financial assistance.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the product of controversy and compromise between Congress and the Nixon administration. Nixon had vetoed an earlier version of the Rehabilitation Act in 1972 because it included provisions expanding the traditional vocational focus of the federal/state rehabilitation system into the area of non-vocational, independent living services.

However, Section 504 and the other provisions of Title V were not part of the dispute between Congress and the administration. To the congressional leadership of the time, many of whom had been supporters of the civil rights legislation of the previous decade, the extension of the guarantees of equal opportunity and equal protection to people with disabilities seemed a necessary step in keeping with the fundamental values of our democratic, constitutional traditions. In practice, however, addressing the particular forms of discrimination experienced by people with disabilities posed new and distinctive challenges. It was four years before regulations implementing Section 504 were finally issued by the Carter administration. The publication of the regulations occurred only after an aggressive national campaign by disability rights advocates to prevent weakening of the regulations and further delay in their implementation. The highlight of the campaign was a nearly four-week occupation of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare offices in San Francisco by people with disabilities.

Reference: Wodatch J. (1990). The ADA: What it says. Worklife, 3, 3.

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Civil Rights Era (1960s)

The legislative phase of the Civil Rights Era saw the enactment of three major civil rights statutes between 1964 and 1968.

In 1963, decades of organizing and struggle by African-Americans culminated in the historic March on Washington. At the march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and defined the Civil Rights Movement's vision of a just and inclusive society to the refrain "I Have a Dream."

Late in 1963, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. Capitalizing on the momentum generated by the march and other effective strategies and applying his own unparalleled understanding of the workings of Capitol Hill, Johnson pressed the civil rights agenda forward. The enactment of the first of the major civil rights statutes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was a watershed moment in American history. Among its other ramifications, it established the statutory foundation on which Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and later the ADA, was constructed.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was broad in its scope, encompassing recipients of federal funds, employers and places of public accommodation, such as bus stations, restrooms and lunch counters, which had figured so prominently in "sit-ins" and "freedom rides." The act was also broad in its definition of protected classes. It prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin. However, the act did not cover people with disabilities. Disability would not be linked to the mainstream of civil rights law which flowed from the Civil Rights Act until Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was enacted almost a decade later.

In 1965, the second major antidiscrimination statute of the civil rights era, the Voting Rights Act, was enacted, followed by the Fair Housing Act three years later.

Following King's assassination in Memphis in 1968, the last of the major civil rights statutes of the 1960s was passed. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 moved through Congress with extraordinary speed, spurred by an outpouring of anger by African-Americans and other concerned people across the United States. Title VIII of the act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin and sex in the sale and rental of housing, but the Fair Housing Act, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, did not include people with disabilities among its protected classes. In 1988, however, the Fair Housing Act was amended to add two new protected classes: people with disabilities and families with children.

In the same year as the Fair Housing Act, a significant piece of disability legislation was enacted; one which demonstrated, however, that the redefinition of disability policy in terms of civil rights was not yet underway. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required that buildings constructed or altered by or on behalf of the United States, leased by the federal government or financed by federal grants or loans – if the authorizing statute permits design standards – be designed and constructed to be accessible to persons with disabilities. The ABA, while not initially effective, established the foundation for later efforts to provide accessibility in federally funded facilities.

The ABA was not civil rights legislation. It had no teeth and was poorly enforced until later action by the Congress linked access policy to civil rights and created an enforcement and technical assistance agency. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the federal Access Board, was established in 1973 under Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act, part of the same Title V as Section 504. The Access Board is composed of the heads of 12 federal agencies, or their high-ranking designees, and 13 public members appointed by the President, at least a majority of whom must be persons with disabilities. As recognition of the necessity of physical and communication accessibility for people with disabilities grew within the federal government, the Access Board was strengthened through a series of congressional actions. Eventually it assumed its current status as a key federal agency, establishing design and scoping standards for facilities covered by the Architectural Barriers Act, Section 504 and the ADA.

In political terms, the influence of the civil rights era lies in the fact that many individuals with disabilities who later became active in the Disability Rights Movement were inspired by the struggle of African-Americans and the Women’s Movement for civil rights. Both movements demonstrated the possibilities for creative political and personal responses to discrimination and social devaluation and emphasized the need for personal empowerment and community organization among people with disabilities who had traditionally been isolated, not only from the mainstream of society, but from one another.

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Developing Disability Rights Laws

From the 1970s to the present, activism among people with disabilities has become increasingly visible, both nationally and internationally. The emergence of the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movements has been critical to the development of state and federal disability policy leading up to and including the ADA.

During the past several decades, disability activism in the United States has been directed at basic civil rights issues such as:

  • Pressuring HEW to issue the regulations implementing Section 504 in 1977.
  • Carrying out a national campaign to train people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities and other advocates and supporters in the use of Section 504 in the late 1970s.
  • Organizing the defense of Section 504 and IDEA from threatened deregulation by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.
  • Strengthening disability rights law at the state and local level throughout the whole period.
  • Advocating education for children with disabilities and fulfillment of the mandate of IDEA to provide an education in "the least restrictive environment,"
  • Organizing support for the enactment and implementation of the ADA.

Disability activism has also been directed at "independent living" issues related to the development of services and resources needed to support the personal independence of people with disabilities and to expand options for living in the community and participating fully in community life, such as:

  • Developing the national network of Centers for Independent Living that combine self-help services and advocacy in organizations that are typically controlled and led by people with disabilities.
  • Closing down custodial institutions for people with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities and developing housing and services to support community integration.
  • Expanding adaptive equipment and home-modification services.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration, as part of its general deregulatory effort, attempted to weaken Section 504 and IDEA. The administration's effort was spearheaded by the Commission of Regulatory Relief, chaired by Vice President George Bush. A broad coalition, including people with disabilities, parents, legal and professional advocates and service providers, organized quickly and was successful in protecting both Section 504 and IDEA. As president, Bush vigorously supported the passage of the ADA.
Following the successful defense of Section 504 and IDEA, the focus on disability rights shifted to the state and local levels. Many states enacted or strengthened state nondiscrimination statutes, accessibility codes and other progressive disability policies. Independent Living Centers continued to spread. State and municipal offices and commissions on disability appeared in many communities. Protection and advocacy agencies broadened their scope to represent and involve people with a wider range of disabilities. The Parents Movement continued to fight for inclusive education and community services.

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Disability Rights Laws (1970s)

Four years after the enactment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first set of regulations implementing Section 504 were issued by the HEW.

In 1975, Public Law 94-142, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, was passed. Since renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was the first federal law to mandate that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education and specified that education occur in the least restrictive environment. Coming two years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 504, the act made it clear that a major revision of national disability policy was taking place; a revision driven by the integration imperative and grounded in a fundamental revaluation of the role of people with disabilities in American society.

Public schools currently have obligations to students with disabilities under both IDEA and ADA. As local government entities, public schools have obligations under ADA which extend not only to students with disabilities who qualify for services under IDEA, but also to other students with disabilities, employees, parents and members of the public who have disabilities.

The movement towards the inclusion of children with disabilities remains controversial today. Many more children with disabilities now receive publicly funded education, but what constitutes the least restrictive environment is often a matter of conflict among education officials, parents, advocates and children with disabilities.

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Disability Rights Laws (1980s)

Disability rights continued to evolve and experienced a watershed year in 1988 with a number of critical developments. Legislation introduced throughout the 1980s included:

Air Carrier Access Act
In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carriers Act, addressing the rights of people with disabilities to the use air transportation. Any individual or private entity that directly or indirectly, by lease or other arrangement, engages in air transportation is obligated under the ACAA to:

  • Operate in a nondiscriminatory manner.
  • Provide accessible and usable facilities.
  • Provide access features in certain new and renovated aircraft.
  • To provide limited communications access for people with hearing impairments including:
    • Access to phone reservation and information services.
    • At least one Telecommunication Device for the Deaf in each terminal.
    • Open captioning or equivalent alternative means of communication when safety briefings are presented to passengers on video screens.

Reference: 14 CFR 382.23 382.7, 382.23, 382.39, 382.43, 382.45, 382.47

The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988
By enacting the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, Congress took the initiative to broaden the application of civil rights laws, including Section 504 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to recipients of federal funds.

In the Grove City case, the Supreme Court narrowed the obligation of federal recipients to comply with antidiscrimination mandates to only those specific programs with larger organizations that directly received federal funding. The Civil Rights Restoration Act mandated that organizations as a whole comply with antidiscrimination requirements.

Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988
The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 was signed into law by President Reagan in September 1988 and became effective on March 12, 1989. FHAA extends the civil rights protections of the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, to two new protected classes – people with disabilities and families with children. The act prohibits discrimination towards people with disabilities in the sale or rental of housing and in the terms, conditions, services or facilities provided.

The definition of disability under the FHAA is the same as the definition under the ADA, which does not cover private housing. FHAA has specific requirements related to disability in three areas:

  • Reasonable accommodations in operating policies and procedures.
  • Modifications to dwelling units and premises.
  • Design standards for new construction.

The landlord or rental agent may not refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices and services to afford a person with a disability equal opportunity to occupy and enjoy full use of a unit. It is unlawful under the FHAA for a landlord to refuse to permit a tenant to make reasonable modifications necessary to enjoy full use of the premises. However, modifications must be made at the expense of the tenant.

The landlord has the right to require that the tenant:

  • Demonstrate that any modifications will be carried out competently and professionally.
  • Make reasonable restoration of the interior of the premises to its original condition.
  • In some cases, establish an escrow account to cover the cost of the restoration.

FHAA Accessible Design Standards

  • At least one building entrance must be on an accessible route.
  • Construct accessible and usable public and common-use areas.
  • All doors on the premises must be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.
  • All ground-floor units and all units on elevator floors must have:
    • An accessible route into and through the dwelling.
    • Accessible switches, outlets and other controls.
    • Reinforced bathroom walls at toilet, tub and shower.
    • Wheelchair maneuverable kitchens and bathrooms.

Public Housing Regulations
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, 11 years after HEW’s issuance of the first Section 504 policies, issued regulations covering federally funded public housing and other recipients of HUD funds, such as the Community Development Block Grant Programs.

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Enactment of the ADA

In 1986, the National Council on Disability issued a statement, "Toward Independence," recommending that a comprehensive law requiring equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities be enacted. The council drafted the first version of the ADA which was introduced in 1988 during the 100th Congress. The Task Force on Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities, under the energetic chairmanship of Justin Dart, Jr., built support nationally, holding hearings in every state.

A second version of the act was introduced in May 1989, with further amendments passed by the Senate on September 7, 1989. Five separate committees held hearings before the House passed its version of the bill on May 22, 1990. Following two conferences between the House and Senate to resolve their differences on the bill, the ADA in its final form passed both Houses in mid-July with overwhelming majorities and key sponsors and supporters from both parties.

The ADA is extremely complex and the deliberations within Congress and between Congress and the administration were detailed and not without controversy. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund led a very effective negotiating team on behalf of the disability community.
On the morning of July 26, 1990, on the south lawn of the White House, with 3,000 disability rights advocates, as well as members of Congress and the administration, looking on, President Bush signed the ADA into law. It was the largest such signing ceremony in history. Bush described the ADA as:

"the world's first comprehensive declaration of the equality of people with disabilities, and evidence of America's leadership internationally in the cause of human rights. With today's signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man woman and child with a disability can now pass through once closed doors, into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom."

The President traced the ADA's roots in American history back through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Declaration of Independence, stating that:

"We are keeping faith with the spirit of our ... forefathers who wrote ... 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.' This Act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees ... (of) freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the ... mosaic of the American mainstream."

During the Clinton administration, the president and the attorney general reaffirmed the commitment of the executive branch to energetic implementation of the ADA.

In its deliberations on the ADA, Congress cited a figure of 43 million Americans having one or more physical or mental disabilities, with more recent census figures estimating 53 million. The number of people who have disabilities is large and continues to grow significantly as individuals reach their sixth and seventh decade of life. Advances in medical practice, such as the development of trauma care centers and treatment of life threatening diseases, also tend to increase rather than decrease incidence of disability among younger persons.

Reference: Wodatch J. (1990). The ADA: What it says. Worklife, 3, 3.

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Opening Doors with the ADA

The scope of the ADA in addressing the barriers to participation by people with disabilities is very broad. The ADA's civil rights protections are parallel to those that have previously been established by the federal government for women and racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

The ADA's definitions of what constitutes discrimination toward people with disabilities and how barriers to their participation are to be eliminated are based on more than a decade of experience implementing Section 504.

  • Employment
    The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in public- and private-sector employment. This includes a requirement that those employers covered under the act make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of qualified applicants and employees, unless providing such accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
  • State and local government
    The ADA expands on the requirement of Section 504 that state and local government programs that receive federal financial assistance provide equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities to participate and benefit. The ADA extends the requirement to public programs that are not recipients of federal financial assistance and, therefore, not covered by Section 504.
  • Public accommodations
    The ADA's requirements that a wide range of public accommodations in the private sector eliminate physical, communication and procedural barriers to access address the widespread exclusion of people with disabilities from the routine activities of daily life that most Americans take for granted. The ADA reaches a broad range of sales, rental and service establishments, as well as educational institutions, recreational facilities and social services centers.
  • Telecommunications
    The ADA addresses the need to make telephone communication services accessible to individuals who have impaired hearing or speech. The ADA requires that all common carriers provide nationwide telecommunications relay services. Relay services are operator systems that relay conversations between people who use Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf or nonvoice terminal devices and those who use the general voice telephone network.
  • Transportation
    The ADA seeks to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to a full range of public and private transportation. If transportation were to remain inaccessible to many individuals with disabilities, the ADA's goal of social integration would be impossible to achieve.

Reference: Wodatch J. (1990). The ADA: What it says. Worklife, 3, 3.

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