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Americans with Disabilities Act Basics

Overview of the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in July 1990. The law guarantees full participation in American society for all people with disabilities, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed the rights of all people regardless of race, sex, national origin, or religion.

The ADA covers every person with an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

It has five titles focused on employment, education, transportation, state and local government, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

Title I

The ADA prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.

An individual with a disability is a person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • has a record of such an impairment;
  • or is regarded as having such an impairment.

A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. Reasonable accommodation may include, but is not limited to:

  • making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities;
  • job restructuring, modifying work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position;
  • acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, adjusting modifying examinations, training materials, or policies, and providing qualified readers or interpreters.

An employer is required to make accommodations to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it does not impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. Undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer’s size, financial resources and the nature and structure of its operation.

However, an employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation, nor is an employer obligated to provide personal use items such as glasses or hearing aids.

Employers may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature or severity of a disability. Applicants may be asked about their ability to perform specific job functions. A job offer may be conditioned on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required for all entering employees in similar jobs. Medical examinations of employees must be job related and consistent with the employer’s business needs.

Employees and applicants currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs are not covered by the ADA. Tests for illegal drugs are not subject to the ADA’s restrictions on medical examinations, and employers may hold illegal drug users and alcoholics to the same performance standards as other employees.

Title II

The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities, and services of public entities.

This applies to all State and local governments, their departments and agencies, and any other instrumentalities or special purpose districts of State or local governments.

Title III

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by “private entities” operating places of “public accommodation.”

Businesses governed by Title III include banks, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels, shopping centers, privately-owned sports arenas, movie theaters, private day care centers, schools and colleges, accountant or insurance offices, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, museums and health clubs.

Title IV

The ADA requires telecommunications companies to provide equivalent services for customers with disabilities, particularly those who are deaf or hard of hearing. This provision lead to the widespread use of teletypewriter (TTY) machines, telecommunications relay service (TRS), and other accessible telecommunications.

Title V

The last title of the ADA includes miscellaneous and technical provisions, including anti-retaliation provisions to protect individuals who exercise their rights under the ADA.


To learn more about the principles of the ADA, our Paralysis Resource Guide provides comprehensive information on the legislation.

Sources: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, The U.S. Department of Justice