Civil Rights and the ADA

Color Silhouettes of people

The ADA is the most comprehensive policy statement ever made in American law about how the nation should address individuals with disabilities.

All too often, policy decisions regarding people with disabilities have been premised on feelings of compassion and pity. The ADA is based on civil rights and not on emotions.

Civil rights, by their very nature, focus on the needs and rights of individuals; they are built on the belief that all individuals, regardless of their circumstances, are entitled to equal treatment in American society. This is especially important when dealing with individuals with disabilities.

As a civil rights law, the ADA is similar to other civil rights acts that protect individuals on the basis of race, religion, age, national origin, and sex. Civil rights laws:

  • Fight discrimination by outlawing segregation and isolation based on misconceptions and biases relative to certain individuals;
  • Provide processes for individuals to file lawsuits to recoup damages from discrimination; and
  • Establish government agencies to handle and investigate discrimination complaints.

As a piece of civil rights legislation, the ADA addresses three objectives:

  1. Counter Myths and Stereotypes
    The ADA was designed to counter myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities and replace traditional notions about disability. The emphasis is on empowerment and individual rights.
    The ADA encourages:
    • Covered entities to focus on the abilities of people with disabilities.
    • Encourages employers to look at people with disabilities as valuable parts of the workforce, instead of seeing them as unemployable and needing government assistance.
    • State and local government leaders to see people with disabilities as contributing members of a community, rather than as social burdens.
    • Places of public accommodation such as stores, theaters, dry cleaners, etc., to see people with disabilities as potential customers, rather than as objects of pity.
      The ADA even covers people without disabilities who are unfairly "regarded as" having a disability. Congress acknowledged that although an individual may have an impairment that does not in fact substantially limit a major life activity, the reaction of others may prove just as disabling.
  2. Remove Segregation and Isolation
    The ADA was designed to remove the barriers that segregated and isolated people with disabilities by:
    • Providing telecommunications relay services (TRS) to help people with hearing and speech impairments communicate better with others.
    • Removing architectural barriers by installing ramps, elevators and accessible parking spaces to make buildings more welcoming and accessible to all visitors.
    • Requiring reasonable accommodation in employment settings to help ensure that people with disabilities can compete in the workplace.
      The ADA also specifically requires that programs and services for people with disabilities be offered in the "most integrated setting possible". This "integration requirement", upheld by a 1999 Supreme Court decision in the case of Olmstead v. L.C. (98-536) 527 U.S. 581 (1999) 138 F.3d 893) [R38] has caused many states to begin to move people with disabilities from segregated institutional settings to integrated community settings.
  3. Provide Accommodations
    Most civil rights laws prohibit discrimination and provide mechanisms for enforcement. The ADA goes one step further by requiring covered entities to provide the accommodations, within reason, that people with disabilities need in order to have equal opportunity to participate and benefit from goods and services offered to the general public.
    Covered entities include private employers with 15 employees or more, public employers, state and local governments, and places of public accommodations (private entities that provide goods and services to the public). This requirement is broad and varied, and takes into account the administrative and financial resources of the covered entity.
    • Employers with 15 or more employees must provide "reasonable accommodations" for qualified employees with disabilities to allow them equal opportunity to participate in the job application process, perform the essential functions of the job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. These could include making existing facilities accessible, altering a work schedule, purchasing assistive technology products, or job reassignment or restructuring.
    • Other covered entities must make reasonable changes to policies and programs to accommodate persons with disabilities, as well as provide auxiliary aids and services, such as sign language interpreters, to ensure effective communication with people with disabilities.

The ADA is built on the principles of equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. The ADA reflects the disability community's determination to participate like all American citizens and to direct their own futures. The National Council on Disability (NCD) 10th anniversary report on ADA enforcement summarized the impact of the ADA this way:

“In the decade after its enactment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has ... brought the principle of disability civil rights into the mainstream of public policy. The law...has fundamentally affected the way Americans perceive disability...It has permanently changed the architectural and telecommunications landscape of the United States. It has created increased recognition and understanding of the manner in which the physical and social environment can pose discriminatory barriers to people with disabilities. It is a vehicle through which people with disabilities have made their political influence felt, and it continues to be a unifying focus for the disability rights movement.”

Source: Promises to Keep - A Decade of Federal Enforcement of the ADA [R23]

However, as the statistics indicate, there is still more to do before people with disabilities enjoy the same civil rights as all Americans. Moreover, ADA compliance is an ongoing responsibility. The ADA did not set forth one-time standards for compliance, but created a framework for continual compliance by covered entities.

The ADA is a "work in progress".

  • New buildings still need to be designed to meet access specifications.
  • Older buildings still need to remove barriers that are readily achievable or provide alternate ways to access goods and services.
  • Employees with disabilities still need workplace accommodations.
  • State and local governments still need to provide access to their programs and services.

Remember, civil rights laws are unique. Effective compliance depends on the context of a specific individual in a particular situation. Each part of the ADA must be applied on an individualized, fact-specific, case-by-case basis.