Overview of the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends federal civil rights protection in several areas to people who are considered "disabled". Built upon a body of existing legislation, particularly the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Civil Right Act of 1964, the act states its purpose as providing "a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities."

The ADA is not an affirmative action statute. Instead, it seeks to dispel stereotypes and assumptions about disabilities, and to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. To achieve these objectives, the law prohibits covered entities from excluding people from jobs, services, activities or benefits based on disability. The law provides penalties for discrimination.

Not every disabled person is covered by the ADA. Certain standards must be met for a person to qualify for the act's protections. To be considered "disabled" under the ADA, a person must have a condition that impairs a major life activity or a history of such a condition, or be regarded as having such a condition.

A disabled person must be qualified for the job, program or activity to which he or she seeks access. To be qualified under the ADA, a disabled person must be able to perform the essential functions of a job or meet the essential eligibility requirements of the program or benefit, with or without an accommodation to his or her condition.

Much of the language in the ADA is taken from existing federal civil rights law and court decisions. Definitions of terms such as employee, employer, commerce, etc., are taken from Title VII of the Civil Right Act. Other terms, such as "reasonable accommodations," "qualified individual with a disability"' "essential functions" and "undue hardship," come directly from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits federal fund recipients from discriminating on the basis of disability in their programs and activities.

The ADA has five titles which cover employment, public services and transportation, public accommodations, telecommunications, and miscellaneous provisions. The various sections of the act become effective at different times. An overview of the separate provisions follows:

Employment (Title I)

The ADA prohibits employers with 15 or more employees (25 or more workers for the first two years at the effective date) from discriminating against qualified job applicants and workers who are or become disabled. The law covers all aspects of employment, including the application and hiring process, on-the-job training, advancement and wages, benefits, and employer-sponsored social activities.

A qualified disabled person is someone who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. An employer must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers, unless that would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Public Services and Transportation (Title II)

Title II of the ADA prohibits state and local governments, and educational institutions from discriminating against disabled people in their programs and activities.

The law requires bus and rail transportation to be accessible to disabled passengers. Air transportation is not covered by the ADA. New public buses and new train cars in commuter, subway, intercity (Amtrak) and light rail systems must be accessible to disabled riders. All new stations and facilities and "key" subway and light rail stations must be made accessible. Where fixed-route and rail bus service is offered, a public transit agency must also offer para-transit service.

Public Accommodations (Title III)

The ADA prohibits private operated public accommodations from denying goods, programs and services to people based on their disabilities. Covered businesses must accommodate disabled patrons by changing policies and practices, providing auxiliary aids and improving physical accessibility, unless that would impose an undue burden.

New and renovated commercial buildings must be accessible. Existing public accommodations must remove architectural and communications barriers where such removal is "readily achievable."

Title III also requires providers of private transportation service, such as private bus lines and hotel vans, to make their vehicles and facilities accessible.

Telecommunications (Title IV)

Title IV of the ADA requires telephone companies to provide continuous voice transmission relay services that allow hearing and speech-impaired people to communicate over the phone through telecommunications devices for the deaf. In addition, Title IV requires that federally funded television public service messages be closed-captioned for hearing-impaired viewers.

Other Provisions (Title 5)

Miscellaneous provisions in Title 5 require the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board to issue accessibility standards; attorneys' fees to be awarded to prevailing parties in suits filed under the ADA; and federal agencies to provide technical assistance. Title V state specifically that illegal use of drugs is not a covered disability under the act. It also provides that states are not immune from suits under the ADA and that other federal, state and local laws that provide equal or greater protection to individuals with disabilities are not superseded or limited by the ADA.