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The Americans with Disabilities Act - Overview

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in:

  • Employment
  • State and local government
  • Public accommodations
  • Commercial facilities
  • Transportation
  • Telecommunications

'Disability' Under the ADA

The ADA applies to persons who meet the definition of "disabled." The ADA considers a person disabled if they have, or seem to have, a physical or mental impairment that limits what the ADA calls a "major life activity." Major life activities are the basic components of any person's life. Such as walking, talking, seeing, and learning. The ADA does not name all the impairments it covers. But common examples of disabilities include

  • Wheelchair use
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental illness

ADA Title I: Employment

Title I prohibits employers with 15 or more employees (including religious entities) from disability discrimination in

  • Hiring
  • Promotions
  • Training
  • Other privileges of employment

It also bars asking questions about an applicant's disability. Title I requires that employers make a reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities unless it results in undue hardship. People must file Title I complaints with the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the date of discrimination or 300 days if they file the charge with a designated state or local fair employment practice agency. They may file a lawsuit in federal court only after they receive a "right-to-sue" letter from the EEOC. They may file charges of employment discrimination on the basis of disability at any EEOC field office.

ADA Title II: State and Local Government Activities

Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments, regardless of the entity's size or receipt of federal financial assistance, to provide an equal opportunity to people with disabilities to use all their programs, services, and activities (e.g. public education, recreation, health care, social services). Title II requires that public entities:

  • Follow architectural standards in the new construction
  • Move programs or provide access to inaccessible older buildings
  • Communicate with people with various disabilities

They must make reasonable necessary modifications unless they can prove that doing so would alter the nature of the service, program, or activity or would result in undue financial and administrative burden.

You can file complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice within 180 days of the date of discrimination. The department may bring a lawsuit when it has investigated a matter and cannot resolve violations. Title II may also be enforceable through private lawsuits in federal court. It is unnecessary to file a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) or any other federal agency or to receive a "right-to-sue" letter before going to court. The Department of Health and Human Services also enforces Title II. HHS focuses on access to programs that get federal funding.

ADA Title II: Public Transportation

Title II covers services such as city buses, subways, and Amtrak. Public transportation authorities may not discriminate against people with disabilities. They must follow the requirements for accessibility in:

  • Recently purchased vehicles
  • Make good faith efforts to buy or lease accessible used buses
  • Remanufacture buses in an accessible manner
  • Provide paratransit where they operate fixed-route bus or rail systems (unless it would result in an undue burden)

Direct questions and complaints about public transportation should go to:

Federal Transit Administration U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 Seventh Street S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590

Complaints and enforcement:

  • (202) 366-2285 (voice)
  • (202) 366-0153 (TDD)

ADA Title III: Public Accommodations

Title III covers:

  • Businesses and nonprofit service providers that are public accommodations
  • Private entities offering certain types of courses and examinations
  • Privately operated transportation
  • Commercial facilities

Places of public accommodations include restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, and more. Public accommodations must follow basic nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit:

  • Exclusion
  • Segregation
  • Unequal treatment

Title III requires reasonable modifications to:

  • Policies
  • Practices and procedures
  • Effective communication with people with various disabilities
  • Other access requirements

Public accommodations must remove barriers in existing buildings where it is easy to do so without much difficulty or expense, given the public accommodation's resources. Entities must provide professional or educational courses and examinations in a place or manner accessible to people with disabilities, or they must offer alternative accessible arrangements. Commercial facilities must follow the ADA's architectural standards for new construction and alterations.

You can file complaints with the Department of Justice. The Department may bring a lawsuit where there is a pattern or practice of discrimination violating Title III. They may also bring a lawsuit where an act of discrimination raises an issue of public importance. Title III is also enforceable through private lawsuits. It is unnecessary to file a complaint with the Department of Justice (or any Federal agency) or receive a "right-to-sue" letter before going to court. For more information or to file a complaint, contact:

Disability Rights Section Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice P.O. Box 66738, Washington, D.C. 20035-6738

You may also call for information at:

  • (800) 514-0301 (voice)
  • (800) 514-0383 (TDD)

ADA Title IV: Telecommunications

Title IV mandates that telephone companies must provide 24/7 telecommunications relay services for local and long-distance calls. These services help people with hearing or speech disabilities using text phones (TTYs or TDDs) and regular voice phones to talk to each other. Title IV also requires closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements. The Federal Communications Commission regulates this provision.

ADA Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

Title V of the ADA covers various provisions that do not belong in the other titles of the ADA. These miscellaneous provisions cover topics such as:

  • Attorney's fees
  • Alternative means of dispute resolution
  • Specific conditions and limitations in the enforcement of ADA
  • Incentives for voluntary compliance, allowing businesses to request technical assistance from the Department of Justice
  • Construction of the ADA
  • Effective Date of the ADA
  • Severability

More Resources

For more information about the ADA, such as updates on ADA amendments or federal government ADA advocacy programs, you can visit

Get Help With Your ADA Claim

Has your employer refused to make reasonable accommodations for your disability? Or were you denied access to a building or business? The ADA protects persons with disabilities in various settings. If you have suffered disability discrimination, you might have a valid ADA claim. Talk to a civil rights law attorney today for help.

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