Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are three federal laws dealing with the disabled that have a major impact on school operations. This entry summarizes the key provisions of the ADA.

What the Law Says

The ADA was enacted in 1990 and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush (42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.). The ADA’s provisions are designed to ensure that neither physical nor programmatic barriers exclude persons with disabilities from full participation in society. Public and private schools are bound by Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirements both as employers and as providers of public services, although ADA’s scope is not limited to educational enterprises. Enacted under the Commerce Clause of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, this comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation has four purposes:
  1. to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities;
  2. to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities;
  3. to ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in this chapter on behalf of individuals with disabilities; and
  4. to invoke the sweep of congressional authority, including the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and to regulate commerce, in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced dayto- day by people with disabilities. (42 U.S.C. §12101)
In order to accomplish these purposes, the ADA requires that “No qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by said entity” (42 U.S.C. §12132).
While Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination “solely by reason of [a person’s] disability” by any recipient of federal financial assistance, Americans with Disabilities Act has a much broader application. In fact, both public and private institutions are bound by ADA’s provisions. As such, ADA essentially extends Section 504 obligations into the private sector.
The ADA has five titles that delineate its application. Title I, which addresses employment discrimination, applies to any employers with 15 or more employees. Under these provisions, otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations to enable them to meet the essential qualifications of any job and may not be discriminated against in hiring, promotions, pay, or other benefits.
Title II concerns discrimination in “public services.” This title applies to schools and largely replicates Section 504 in terms of how public schools must ensure nondiscrimination for their students. Private schools, though not directly bound by Section 504, must comply with the ADA and must reasonably accommodate students’ disabilities within existing programs. However, private schools need not create new programs in order to address the educational needs of children.
Title III prohibits discrimination in “public accommodations” and includes provisions that require, among other things, that entities serving the public maintain barrier free access to facilities and services. Title IV applies to telecommunications. Finally, Title V contains a number of miscellaneous provisions, including those related to technical assistance.
In a manner similar to that of Section 504, individuals are eligible for protection against discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they have mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more of life’s major activities; have a history of such impairment; or are regarded as having such impairments (42 U.S.C. §12102(1)). Major life activities include, but are not limited to walking, talking, hearing, breathing, seeing, learning, and working. The ADA specifically excludes persons who actively use alcohol or drugs from protection, although persons who are recovering alcoholics or addicts are protected from discrimination. Persons who believe they have been discriminated against may file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Office for Civil Rights.

Court Rulings

The Supreme Court has considered several questions related to various provisions of the ADA, albeit none in a school setting. However, insofar as they are informative for those interested in education, the remainder of this entry reviews these cases. For example in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc. (1999), the Court held that a determination concerning whether a physical or mental impairment “substantially limits a major life activity” must consider how the person functions with available corrective measures. Likewise, in Murphy v. United Parcel Service (1999), the Court was of the opinion that if medications could mitigate a condition such that a person functioned normally while medicated, the person could not be considered substantially limited under the ADA. Moreover, in Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams (2002), the Court reasoned that a limitation to a major life activity had to be something that “prevented or restricted [a person] from performing tasks that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives” (p. 187).
The Supreme Court has also considered what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation.” For example, in PGA Tour v. Casey Martin (2001), the Court determined that even a competitor with a disability in a professional golf tournament was entitled to a reasonable accommodation for his disability. In pointing out that the Americans with Disabilities Act entitled the plaintiff to the use of a golf cart, the Court reasoned that unless a modification would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the activity, it must be allowed. In addition, a reasonable accommodation does not require an undue administrative or financial burden to be accepted. In such a case, US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett (2002), the Court concluded that because requiring an employer to ignore seniority provisions of a contract would have been unduly burdensome, it was not required as a reasonable accommodation.
Julie F. Mead

See also Disabled Persons, Rights of; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504
Further Readings
Huefner, D. S. (2006). Getting comfortable with special education law: A framework for working with children with disabilities (2nd ed.). Norwood, MA: Christopher- Gordon.
Mawdsley, R. D. (2005). Barrier-free facilities. In K. A. Lane, M. J. Connelly, J. F. Mead, M. A. Gooden, & S. Eckes (Eds.), The principal’s legal handbook (3rd ed., pp. 187–196). Dayton, OH: Education Law Association.
Legal Citations
Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.
Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 527 U.S. 516 (1999).
PGA Tour v. Casey Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001).
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).
Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999).
Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002).
US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002).