Signed in July 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides the disabled with protections similar to those already covering discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, race, religion, and veteran status. An individual is protected under the ADA if his/her ability to perform one or more major life activities (such as hearing, sight, self-care, walking, breathing, speaking, or learning) is hampered by a physical or mental condition, if they have a record of having such a condition, is thought of as such, or associates with such a person. The law is designed to open up employment opportunities, government services, public accommodations, transportation services, and telecommunications to the disabled on an equal-opportunity basis. Unfortunately, successive Supreme Court rulings have steadily weakened the ADA.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified disabled people in all employment-related activities, including: hiring, promotion, training, and compensation. Except in cases where a person’s disability poses a direct threat to their own and/or others’ health and safety in the performance of the job, disability cannot be used as a basis for discrimination. Except where it would be infeasible, or impose a significant expense or effort (an “undue hardship”) on the part of the employer, organizations employing 15 or more must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees and job applicants as they request or indicate. Such reasonable accommodations can include, for example, accessibility modifications to existing facilities, changing work schedules, providing adaptive or modified equipment (such as speech-recognition computer software for someone with cerebral palsy), or adjusting training.
In covering the provision of government services, the ADA obligates states and localities to ensure that the disabled enjoy equal access to government employment, programs, and services. Besides being subject to similar employment and access rules to those governing private employers, state and local entities also must remove discriminatory barriers to the disabled for participation in and eligibility for programs, activities, and services. Additionally, these organizations must provide for “public accessibility,” that is, they need to ensure that the disabled can access all of their programs, activities, and services, by providing them in accessible locations, whether in their own facilities, or at an offsite location.
Some of the most visible changes brought by the ADA stem from the law’s “public accommodations” provisions, which apply to a private company or other organization which owns or operates a facility open for public access, such as a theater, restaurant, shopping mall, park, museum, or any other of a wide range of facilities. These provisions, which include both major renovations of existing buildings and new construction, are intended to ensure the accessibility of new and newly renovated public facilities. Such places include a variety of access-minded features, providing, for example, parking lots with curb cuts and a number of designated accessible spaces, elevators, barrier-free design and layout, accessible bathrooms, tables of wheelchair-appropriate clearance and height, and sufficiently wide doorways. Under the ADA, reasonable accommodations for such public establishments go beyond just physical access; they can include, for example, reading a price tag to a blind customer, retrieving a book from an unreachable shelf for a wheelchair user, and providing straws and cutting up food for a patron with limited arm function at a restaurant.
Public and private transportation services are similarly enjoined by the ADA against discriminatory behavior to the disabled; they must provide an equal or at least equally effective level of service as that provided to the nondisabled. Airlines, taxi lines, train and bus lines, and other transportation providers must make reasonable accommodations, including, for example, ensuring the accessibility of: new and refurbished buses and depots, commuter and light rail train cars, stations, and providing access-enabling services to physically or mentally disabled riders.
Another major area covered by the ADA is that of telecommunications services for those with hearing and/or speech impairments. Telecommunications providers (phone companies), for example, must allow telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) and teletype usage and communication with operators. In addition, in states lacking their own telecommunications relay service (TRS) programs (TRS allows, through an intermediary, a person using a TDD to communicate with an unimpaired person without one), providers must provide impaired customers with these services continuously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at no extra cost or limitation (such as call length).