What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Learn the basics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and find out why not everyone is celebrating its 20th birthday.

Adam Freedman
5-minute read

Today’s topic:  The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 20. Learn the basics of this landmark legislation--and why not everyone is celebrating its birthday.

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This post does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which forbids discrimination against the disabled by businesses and government in a variety of contexts. The law is widely praised for removing barriers to handicapped individuals. But the law also has its critics, many of whom charge that the ADA has led to unintended consequences and frivolous lawsuits.

What Does the ADA Cover?

The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. As I explained in an earlier article, the ADA is one of many federal laws targeting discrimination against vulnerable groups. The law has four main sections which cover discrimination in employment, state and local government, “public accommodations,” and telecommunications.

What is a “Disability?”

To fall under the protection of the ADA, an individual must have a “disability,” which the law defines as a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The law also covers persons who are thought to have such an impairment (even if they don’t), as well as persons discriminated against because they have a known association or relationship with an individual with a disability.

To take an example, HIV/AIDS can count as a disability under the ADA; thus discrimination against a person suffering from AIDS as well as that person’s partner, is prohibited. The law could potentially also cover a person who is wrongly suspected of having AIDS.

What Exactly Is Employment Discrimination?

Title I of the ADA covers employment discrimination. The law requires employers with 15 or more employees grant equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to perform a job. For example, it prohibits discrimination in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other privileges of employment.

If an individual would be qualified to perform the essential functions of a particular job, except for his or her disability, the employer is required to consider making what is known as a “reasonable accommodation” for that individual.

What is “Reasonable Accommodation?”

“Reasonable accommodation” is a term that describes any modification to a job or work environment that allows a disabled person to apply for, or perform, a particular job. These can include, for example, making a job site accessible, modifying work schedules, acquiring special equipment, or providing training. 

State and Local Governments Must Comply

Title II of the ADA requires that State and local governments give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities (such as public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, and town meetings). States and localities have to follow specific architectural standards in the new construction and alteration of their buildings


About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).