Americans with Disabilities Act

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that stops private and public businesses, organizations, and other entities from discriminating against people with disabilities.


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U.S. History, Storytelling

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In 1990, the United States government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is an important piece of civil rights legislation that helps protect the rights of people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, stops private and public businesses, organizations, and other entities from discriminating against people with disabilities. The law is intended to give people with disabilities the same opportunities and rights as non-disabled people by eliminating barriers to participation and creating support systems for those who need them.

Titles of the ADA

The ADA is made up of five different sections, called Titles, that have their own provisions. Title One of the Act regards employment rights and stops discrimination by companies and other organizations against people with disabilities. It says that an employer can not reject hiring someone, fire someone, cut their pay or treat them differently with training and other career advancements because of their disability. It also says that employers should create and use supports for people with disabilities to help them do their jobs. These supports are called “accommodations.” Some common examples of these supports are creating accessible parking spaces, allowing service animals, or changing equipment such as computers to make it easier for someone with a disability to use.

Title Two of the Act is about public entities and disability rights. It says that people with disabilities cannot be denied services from a public entity, such as government agencies or services run by those agencies. This section of the act has a specific section about making public transportation accessible to those with disabilities, including commuter rails. This was one of the more debated sections of the Act, because transportation companies fought back against measures like making trains accessible to those using wheelchairs, citing the cost.

Title Three of the Act says private entities also cannot discriminate against people with disabilities and must be accessible to people with disabilities. This includes altering buildings so that people using wheelchairs can access them and other supports that can help people with disabilities access services more easily. Title Three also says that the Attorney General can bring litigation or lawsuits against anyone who discriminates against those with disabilities. High-profile examples include Justice Department complaints against Greyhound Bus Lines in 2016 and against Uber in 2021.

Title Four of the Act says that telephone services, television, and other communications must support a person with a hearing loss to be able to use that service at roughly the same level as a typically hearing person. This is why, today, closed captioning, or subtitles that give dialogue and sound effects descriptions, is available for every television broadcast.

Finally, Title Five is a collection of other provisions, all dealing with a number of different topics. The most important provision in this section is that employers and other entities cannot retaliate against those with disabilities for making a discrimination complaint or requesting supports at work. This, in theory, stops people with disabilities from being harassed by their employer or getting intimidated out of asking for extra support. For example, prior to the ADA, a person might be barred from promotion or fired if they asked to modify their work schedule because of their disability.


The ADA was approved into law because of a long history of activism by people with disabilities and their allies. People with disabilities and people who support them have been speaking out and leading activist organizations since the 1800s. Even more advocacy groups formed in the 20th century, when a big shift towards advocacy and activism took hold. However, these advocacy organizations were typically focused on one particular type of disability, rather than recognizing people with disabilities as their own group that needed the support of additional civil rights legislation. At the time, few were advocating for disabled people as a unified group. Though people with disabilities were making headway in changing society’s views on disability by getting leaders like John F. Kennedy to support research, people with disabilities were left out of other important pieces of legislation of the mid and late 1900s, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Realizing that people with disabilities would gain more traction if they advocated for their rights as a group, activists began framing their advocacy in the same way other groups fought for civil rights. The first major piece of legislation to support the civil rights of people with disabilities was section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. It said that people with disabilities could not be banned from receiving federal funds or discriminated against by the government regarding federal funds. Though it was just one section of a much longer act, it was significant in how it framed the issue of disability rights. Section 504 was modeled after other Civil Rights legislation, and it recognized people with disabilities as their own group for the first time. Though the act was written in 1973, it was not signed for several years. Disability activists protested in 1977 by leading sit-ins across the country. After less than a month of increased, focused activism, the regulations were signed.

Activism for people with disabilities continued for about the next fifteen years. There were other pieces of legislation concerning disabilities signed in the 1970s and 1980s, and the disability rights movement gained more and more momentum.

In April of 1988, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut brought a more comprehensive piece of disability rights legislation to Congress: the Americans with Disabilities Act. When the Act met opposition on the way to becoming law, activists with disabilities increased their efforts even more. One of the issues that was holding up the passage of the ADA was that trains and other public transit companies were lobbying against it. They wanted to cut the regulations that would force them to make their vehicles, stations, and other equipment accessible to those who use wheelchairs and other people with mobility needs. To put pressure on lawmakers to sign the act into law, activists left their mobility aids at the bottom of the Capitol steps and went up the stairs, most using their hands and knees to climb. This famous demonstration was later known as the “Capitol Crawl,” which succeeded in drawing more national attention to the fight for the ADA. After the Capitol Crawl and other protests, the ADA was passed in July of 1990.

The ADA has had a major impact on the lives of people with disabilities, but it has not solved all the issues that people with disabilities face in society. People with disabilities report that the accessibility of phones, television, public transportation, and public buildings have all improved under the ADA. However, employment of people with disabilities has not improved significantly overall since the ADA was passed. The employment rate for people with disabilities dropped after the ADA, but experts disagree on whether the ADA was the direct cause of this or not. More recently, the ADA was amended in 2008 to broaden the definition of disability and strengthen the provisions in the ADA overall.

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Last Updated

February 20, 2024

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