Disability discrimination is the unequal treatment of a person based on a real or perceived disability.
People with disabilities often need special assistance, such as larger restroom stalls or special parking spaces. That means "equal" refers to access and the right to be treated similarly regardless of accommodations.
This article offers in-depth information about discrimination on the basis of disability in several settings. These settings include employment and public accommodations, such as access to buildings and businesses.
You'll also find an overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There are links to other key federal laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to disability discrimination.
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the main federal law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in the areas of:
- Employment, including job applicants
- State and local government
- Public accommodations
- Commercial facilities such as restaurants and stores
The ADA protects the rights of people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a "major life activity."
This includes working or accessing a department store, for example. The ADA also covers those who are merely perceived as being disabled.
There is no comprehensive list of what the ADA considers a disability.
- Reliance on canes or other assistive devices
- Confinement to a wheelchair
- Certain types of mental illness
Title I of the ADA
Title I of the ADA covers employment discrimination and applies to employers with at least 15 employees. This includes employment agencies.
If a reasonable accommodation can be made for an otherwise qualified individual, the employer must make an accommodation. Installing an elevator for an employee who uses a wheelchair probably would not be considered reasonable, as that type of request would cause undue hardship on the employer. Modifying equipment or providing an interpreter for an interview would be more reasonable examples.
Title II of the ADA
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) addresses federal agencies and public entities, regardless of receiving federal financial assistance.
Title II of the ADA also covers state and local government services and public transportation. The U.S. Department of Justice enforces Title II.
Title IV of the ADA
Title IV of the ADA addresses telecommunications relay services. It covers access to television and telephones for people with speech disabilities, for instance.
There have been amendments to the ADA that offer additional protections.
Disability Discrimination and the U.S. Supreme Court
Certain details of the ADA have been ironed out in the courts, including the Supreme Court.
Below are a few key Supreme Court cases that have further clarified the ADA since its passage in 1990:
- Bragdon v. Abbot (1998) - The Court held that individuals who are HIV-positive (or perceived to be HIV-positive) are considered disabled under the ADA.
- Murphy v. United Parcel Service (1999) - The Court ruled that a person's disability is determined with regard to the mitigating factors employed. In this case, the petitioner's impairment did not "substantially limit" any major life activities if properly medicated.
- Sutton v. United Airlines (1999) - The Court clarified the meaning of "disabled" under the ADA. The Court ruled that two severely nearsighted applicants for commercial pilot jobs were not discriminated against. Instead, the applicants failed to meet the job requirements.
How To File a Public Accommodations Claim Under the ADA
Suppose you believe you've been discriminated against on the basis of a disability when trying to access a restaurant, sports venue, school campus, or other public accommodation provider. Maybe you've been denied equal access or been subjected to segregation. In that case, you may want to file a claim.
One way to get started is to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice with the following information:
- Name, address, telephone number
- Name and address of business or organization being accused of discrimination
- Description of the act or acts considered discriminatory, including dates and names of people involved
- Any other information that may help your case
Another option is to file a formal complaint either in U.S. District Court or online at the DoJ website.
Agencies Responsible for Enforcing Anti-Discrimination Laws
There are numerous agencies responsible for enforcing disability discrimination laws. Which agency is involved depends on the context of your claim.
Some possibilities include:
- Department of Transportation
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Federal Communications Commission
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Learn About Disability Discrimination
Click on any of the links below for more information about disability discrimination and applicable nondiscrimination laws.
- Disability Discrimination Basics: This provides an overview of disability discrimination law. Learn about how federal law prevents disability discrimination in employment, education, housing, building access, and transportation
- The Americans with Disabilities Act: The ADA, a civil rights law, prohibits disability discrimination in several contexts. Learn about what constitutes a disability under the Act, and much more.
- Rental Housing Rights for Disabled Tenants: Under federal law, landlords can't discriminate against tenants or prospective tenants on the basis of a disability. Learn about the Fair Housing Act, the types of actions that are considered discriminatory, and more.
- Disability Discrimination Laws: Various federal laws protect individuals from being discriminated against based on a disability. This article provides links and information on the ADA, the Architectural Barriers Act, and more.
- Disability Discrimination: U.S. Supreme Court Cases: This provides a guide to several landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases dealing with disability discrimination, including Bragdon v. Abbott, Murphy v. United Parcel Services, and others.
- Disability Access: How to File an ADA Title III Complaint: If you believe you or someone you know has been discriminated against based on a disability, one option is to file a complaint with the federal government. This article explains the process involved.
More Disability Discrimination Articles
Click on any of the links below for further information about disability discrimination in specific contexts.
- ADA Access to Buildings and Businesses (Public Accommodations) - Overview
- Air Passengers with Disabilities
- Disability Discrimination in Education
- Disability Discrimination in Health Care
- Disability Discrimination in Health Care and Health Services
- Disabled Access to Buildings and Businesses: FAQ
- Mental Disability and Insurance Coverage
- Supreme Court Decisions' Narrow Definition of "Disability"
- The Americans with Disabilities Act - Overview
- Transportation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Q&A
You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer's Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to protect your civil rights. Disability rights are human rights. Take affirmative action.
Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Learn About Disability Discrimination
Disability Discrimination Articles
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.