What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees that they have equal opportunity to participate in mainstream American life. Passed in 1990, this federal law made it illegal to discriminate against a disabled person in terms of employment opportunities, access to transportation, public accommodations, communications, and government activities.

The ADA prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against those who have disabilities. Under the ADA, employers are also required to make reasonable accommodations in order for an employee with a disability to perform their job function.

Key Takeaways

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to prevent workplace and hiring discrimination against people with disabilities.
  • The ADA applies to all private businesses with 15 or more employees.
  • It also covers government employers, employment agencies, and labor unions.
  • The ADA also had the effect of increasing accessibility and mobility for disabled persons by mandating automatic doorways, ramps, and elevators to accommodate wheelchairs in public places and businesses.

Understanding the Americans With Disabilities Act

To be covered by the ADA a person must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Three major sections comprise the primary protections introduced by the ADA.

Title I of the law prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities during job application procedures, hiring, firing, the pursuit of career advancement, compensation, job training, and other aspects of employment. It holds authority over employers who have 15 or more employees.

Title II applies to state and local government entities. This part of the law further extends the protection from discrimination to qualified individuals with disabilities. It requires that these individuals have reasonable access to services, programs, and activities provided by the government.

Title III prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities regarding access to activities at public venues. This includes businesses that are generally open to the public such as restaurants, schools, day care facilities, movie theaters, recreation facilities, and doctors' offices. The law also requires newly constructed, rebuilt, or refurbished places of public accommodation to comply with ADA standards. In addition, Title III applies to commercial facilities that include privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses or office buildings.

Different government agencies play a role in enforcing the ADA. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title I. The Department of Labor enforces state and local government services under Title II and public accommodations under Title III.

The Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 allowed for a broader legal definition of "disability." It made it easier for people seeking protection under the ADA to establish that they have a disability. Before the amendment, people with disabilities including cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and learning disabilities could be excluded from ADA coverage. 

How the Americans With Disabilities Act Increased Accessibility 

The ADA established standards for accessible design for public accommodations that include creating automatic doorways, ramps, and elevators to accommodate wheelchairs. Water fountains must be made available at heights that individuals with disabilities can reach.

Some examples of accommodations in the workplace include supplying a hearing impaired applicant with a sign language interpreter during a job interview, modifying a work schedule to meet the needs of a person who needs treatment, or restructuring an existing facility to make it readily accessible to persons with disabilities. An employer is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to make reasonable accommodations if doing so presents an undue hardship for the business and requires significant expenses in comparison with the size of the company.

Title IV of the ADA requires telephone companies to provide telephone relay services, or similar devices, for the hearing impaired.