Independent Living


The A.D.A.

Greg Smith rolls his wheelchair up to a large statue of Franklin Roosevelt.

Dispelling A.D.A. Myths

Myth: A.D.A.-related lawsuits are flooding the courts.

Fact: The A.D.A. has resulted in a surprisingly small number of lawsuits—only about 650 nationwide in five years, a small amount compared to the six million employers, businesses and state and local government offices that must comply with its regulations.

Myth: The A.D.A. requires businesses to spend lots of money to make their existing facilities accessible.

Fact: The A.D.A. recognizes that altering existing structures is more costly than making new construction accessible. The law only requires that public accommodations remove architectural barriers in existing facilities when it can be done without much difficulty or expense. Businesses are only required to do what is readily achievable at that time.

Myth: The A.D.A. forces business and government to spend lots of money hiring unqualified people.

Fact: No unqualified job applicant or employee with a disability can claim employment discrimination under the A.D.A.

Myth: Accommodating workers with disabilities costs too much.

Fact: Reasonable accommodation is usually far less expensive than many people think. A recent study commissioned by Sears indicates that of the 436 reasonable accommodations provided by the company between 1978 and 1992, 69 percent cost nothing, 28 percent cost less than $1,000, and only three percent cost more than $1,000.

Myth: The government is no help when it comes to paying for accessibility.

Fact: Not so. Federal tax incentives are available to help meet the cost of A.D.A. compliance.

January 2005 marked the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the A.D.A. Passed in 1990, the A.D.A. is a federal civil rights law designed to prevent discrimination and enable individuals with disabilities to participate fully in all aspects of American society.

What is the A.D.A.?
Comprised of three parts, the A.D.A.’s Title I prohibits discrimination based on disability in the workplace. Title II prohibits discrimination in the provision of public benefits and services and Title III by private businesses. Enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title I—which went into effect in 1992—has received the most attention since the bill’s passage. Title I makes it illegal for private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions to discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation and training.

How does the A.D.A. define disability?
The A.D.A. defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as sitting, standing, or sleeping). But the A.D.A. covers more than just people who are deaf, blind, or use wheelchairs. People who have physical conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes, HIV infection or severe forms of arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome; or mental impairments such as major depression, mental retardation or bipolar disorder may also be defined as disabled. The A.D.A. also protects a person with a record of a substantially limiting impairment, such as a person with a history of cancer that is now in remission.

What does the A.D.A. require people to do?
In relation to the A.D.A.’s Title I, 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. Employers must make sure that people with disabilities will have equal opportunities to apply for, work in and be promoted in jobs for which they are qualified. The A.D.A. also prohibits employers from asking job applicants about the existence, nature or severity of their disabilities, and from asking applicants to take a medical exam before making a job offer.

The A.D.A. defines “reasonable accommodation” as any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. This could be as simple as painting new lines in a parking lot to create a new accessible parking space, or lowering a paper towel dispenser in a bathroom to make it wheelchair-accessible.

In addition to requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodation, the A.D.A. asks that public accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps, be installed in places such as restaurants, theaters, hotels, medical officers, libraries, parks, and daycare centers. Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt from the A.D.A.'s Title III requirements for public spaces.

What has the A.D.A. accomplished?
A.D.A. accomplishments in the past 15 years include countless installations of public accommodations for disabled Americans. Examples include the Utah state courts providing interpreters for deaf jurors, the College Entrance Examination Board creating additional SAT test dates for students with disabilities, and a variety of stores removing architectural barriers to access. In addition to changing the physical barriers towards people with disabilities, the A.D.A. has also helped to change mental barriers of prejudice toward the disabled. Nonetheless, as Greg Smith discovers while searching for a wheelchair-accessible taxi cab to take him to an A.D.A. Tenth Anniversary event, the U.S. still has a long way to go in providing equal access to all Americans.


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