What is the Americans With Disabilities Act?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of the broadest and most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the late 20th Century. The Act was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination in public schools on the basis of disability.
In creating the Act, Congress concluded:
“The Act should provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, but that people with physical or mental disabilities are frequently precluded from doing so because of prejudice, antiquated attitudes, or the failure to remove societal and institutional barriers.” ADA.gov
The ADA is organized into five sections based on areas of regulation. These are:
- Public accommodations
- State and local government services
Who is protected by the ADA?
The law applies to U.S. citizens with disabilities. The ADA defines a disability as “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.” Congress was intentional about not identifying all of the conditions to which the Act applies because they wanted it to provide broad coverage.
Are there any amendments to the ADA?
When Congress passed the ADA, it maintained the functional definition of disability from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As such, Congress believed the courts would interpret the ADA consistent with how previous courts had applied the definition of a handicapped individual in the Rehabilitation Act. The Supreme Court, however, narrowed the definition of handicap in Sutton v. United Air Lines, 547 U.S. 471, 482 (1999). In 2002, the Court narrowed it further in Toyota Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002).
After these rulings, lower courts followed suit and removed protections from many individuals that Congress believed would have been protected under the original Act. In response, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act of 2008 in an attempt to restore the expansive definition of the term “disability” as the Act originally appointed.
“As a result of these Supreme Court cases, lower courts have incorrectly found in individual cases that people with a range of substantially limiting impairments are not people with disabilities;” EEOC
The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 became effective January 1, 2009.
Who enforces the ADA?
The Department of Labor and several other government agencies enforce the ADA in various areas of application. Of most concern to U.S. employers is the role of the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC regulates Title I of the ADA which bans public and private employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in employment issues. These include applying, hiring, reasonable accommodation, and job training.
Other agencies that enforce the ADA in areas under their jurisdiction include the Department of Transportation, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services.