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30 Years of The ADA

by Amy Barto, M.Ed.

“The ADA story began a long time ago in cities and towns throughout the United States when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children” (Mayerson, 1992).

What the Law Includes

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities  that was introduced in Congress on May 9, 1989 and signed into law on July 26, 1990. The law is divided into five sections (called Titles) relating to public life and lists the agencies responsible for regulation of that aspect of the law.  

Title I: Employment

Title I is regulated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is

designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Regulations apply to employers with 15 or more employees and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees. 

A “reasonable accommodation” is a change that accommodates employees with disabilities so they can do the job without causing the employer “undue hardship” (too much difficulty or expense).

Title II: Public Services (State and Local Government)

Title II is regulated by the U.S. Department of Justice, though information, guidance, and regulations related to transportation and the ADA are released from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration. Title II is designed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability by “public entities” such as state and local government agencies and requires public entities to make their programs, services and activities accessible to individuals with disabilities and outlines requirements for self-evaluation and planning; making reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discrimination; identifying architectural barriers; and communicating effectively with people with hearing, vision and speech disabilities.

Title III: Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities

Title III is regulated by the U.S. Department of Justice, though, like Title II, information, guidance, and regulations related to transportation and the ADA are released from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration. Title III is designed to prohibit places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. 

Public accommodations include privately owned, leased or operated facilities like hotels, restaurants, retail merchants, doctor’s offices, golf courses, private schools, day care centers, health clubs, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on. 

Title III sets the minimum standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction of commercial facilities and privately owned public accommodations. Title III also requires public accommodations to remove barriers in existing buildings where it is easy to do so without much difficulty or expense.

Additionally, Title III directs businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities and requires that businesses take steps necessary to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.

Title IV: Telecommunications

Title IV is regulated by the Federal Communication Commission. Title III requires telephone and Internet companies to provide a nationwide system of interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services that allows individuals with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone and requires closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements.

Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions 

Title V contains a variety of provisions relating to the ADA as a whole, including its relationship to other laws, state immunity, its impact on insurance providers and benefits, prohibition against retaliation and coercion, illegal use of drugs, and attorney’s fees. Title V also provides a list of certain conditions that are not considered disabilities.

Disability and The ADA

In the ADA, a disability means (with respect to an individual) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. 

Today, the ADA is also referred to as the ADAA because The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 was signed on September 25, 2008. This law was enacted to clarify the scope of the definition of disability under the ADA in response to several Supreme Court decisions. The goal of lawmakers was to ensure that it would be easier for those seeking protection under ADA to establish that they did have a disability and, therefore, were protected from discrimination under the ADA. 

Substantially Limits One or More Major Life Activities

Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. 

A Person Who Has a History or Record of Such an Impairment

There is no specific definition of history or record in the law. There was language added in the Amendments of 2008 (Sec. 12102.4) to clarify: the definition of disability will be interpreted broadly ; the question of whether or not an impairment is a disability will not demand extensive analysis; determination of “substantially limits” shall not consider the corrective or remiadiative effects of “mitigating measures” such as medications or hearing aids; an impairment does not have to substantially limit other major life activities in order to be considered a substantially limiting impairment. 

A Person Who is Perceived by Others as Having Such an Impairment

An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity (Sec. 12102.3). It is also noted in the statute that this does not include impairments that are transitory (duration of 6 months or less). 

For Individuals with Learning Disabilities

The ADA protects an individual from unlawful discrimination. The law outlines that reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to, redesigning equipment, assigning aides, providing written communication in alternative formats, modifying tests, redesigning services to accessibility locations, altering existing facilities, and building new facilities. As Cindy explained in this issue’s opening message, the ADA prohibits discrimination against a person with a disability in employment under any service, program, or activity conducted by a public entity.  In an article in the State Legislatures Magazine (July 2020), Josh Cunningham shared that “[b]eyond eliminating discrimination, the ADA proclaimed that people with disabilities have a right to experience basic life activities in a manner similar to those without disabilities”. For most individuals with learning disabilities, this translates to the right to experience the basic life activities related to employment and education in a manner similar to those without disabilities. 


The ADA Network provides information, guidance and training specific to the Americans with Disabilities Act. In their fact sheet for Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace, they define a reasonable accommodation as “any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities”. 

Employees with learning disabilities may experience various types of limitations, just as they also have various areas of strengths. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with learning disabilities need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. Furthermore, there are many free or inexpensive assistive technologies available to provide effective accommodations for many employees with LD. LDA offers fact sheets like What Employers Should Know about Learning Disabilities and other resources related to understanding LD and accommodations in the workplace on our website. 


While the ADA does not directly address education, ADA protections supports students with disabilities in conjunction with other disability laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

IDEA is an education act which provides federal funding to guaranteed special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities ages 3-21. Children with disabilities who are determined by a multidisciplinary team to be eligible for special education services receive protections and services under IDEA. IDEA also provides federal funds to assist states and local education agencies in meeting IDEA requirements for serving infants, toddlers, and youth with disabilities. 

Like the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law which prohibits discrimination based on disability. Children with disabilities who are determined by a multidisciplinary team to not be eligible for special education are protected by the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA protects against discrimination by public entities on the basis of disability. 504 prohibits disability discrimination by any “program or activity” receiving federal funding.  Public schools, and most colleges and universities receive some form of federal funding and therefore must adhere to the protections of 504. Section 504 also contains the requirement that school programs receiving federal funding provide an “appropriate education”, or an education comparable to that provided to students without disabilities.

Read more about the ADA and 504 in LDA’s article, ADA and 504 – When is an Individual with a Learning Disability Protected by These Laws?