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Rights of People with Disabilities

What are the U.S. laws that ensure the rights of people with disabilities?

While Americans with disabilities have faced discrimination and exclusion in their communities and daily lives over the history of the country, over the past several decades, federal laws and court decisions have enshrined the fundamental civil, legal, and human rights of people with disabilities. There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that Americans with disabilities have access to all of their rights, and social prejudice, funding limits, poor enforcement of laws, and other issues sometimes still prevent people with disabilities from being fully integrated and included in society.

The disability rights movement has fought for the rights of people with disabilities, achieving a number of critical legal victories over the past several decades and continues to do so.

In this article, we review some of the key rights that people with disabilities have in the United States today, including the right to have equal access to employment, housing, education, and public access.

Learn more about the laws and regulations that ensure these rights for all Americans with disabilities.

Employment

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, was a groundbreaking civil rights law that prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of public life, including employment. In employment, the ADA applies specifically to employers who have 15 or more employers.

Additionally, Sections 501 and 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federally funded programs, applies to all agencies of the federal government as well federal contractors and employers who receive federal funding for their programs.

Together, these laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace against people with disabilities. Employers may not subject people with disabilities to different job candidate evaluations. Employers may not treat employees with disabilities any differently than other employees, other than to provide accommodations for their needs.

Additionally, under these laws, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to their employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations can include things like Braille signs in common spaces, physical access via elevators and ramps, and a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD) or hearing-impaired employees, along with the services of a sign language interpreter. Employers who are covered by either law may be exempt from making reasonable accommodations if this could cause undue hardship.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency tasked with administering and enforcing laws against workplace discrimination. To learn more, contact the EEOC by phone (in more than 100 languages) at 1-800-669-4000, 1-800-669-6820 (TTY for Deaf/Hard of Hearing callers), 1-844-234-5122 (ASL Video Phone for Deaf/Hard of Hearing callers), or visit your local EEOC field office.

Housing

The ADA, the Fair Housing Act, and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, in addition to provisions of the Architectural Barriers Act, protect people from disabilities from discrimination in housing. Landlords and home sellers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities by refusing to sell, rent, or finance housing for people with disabilities. Additionally, landlords must provide reasonable accommodations in the housing unit for tenants with disabilities and may not segregate disabled tenants from other tenants or deny access to common areas.

More specifically, Titles II and III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by all private entities who own, lease, or operate housing. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions. Finally, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in any housing programs that receive federal funding.

Under the terms of these laws, landlords must provide and pay for reasonable accommodations and must allow tenants to make reasonable changes to the premises at their own expense as well.

Additionally, properties that have rules against pets must make exceptions for service animals and emotional support animals. According to the American Kennel Club, service dogs help people with disabilities lead independent, fulfilling lives by providing a wide variety of tasks, from guiding the blind and visually impaired to pulling wheelchairs. The ADA defines a service animal as 'a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” Emotional support animals are a different type of assistance animal that provides emotional support but is not trained to conduct particular tasks. Under the Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals are recognized as a kind of assistance animal requiring 'reasonable accommodation.'

Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that any state that accepts federal financial aid provide appropriate primary and secondary education to all children with disabilities. Under IDEA, schools are responsible for carrying out evaluations to determine whether a child qualifies for special education. Each child with a disability who needs access to special education receives an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) that must be approved by both the parents and the school.

Students who do not need access to special education but may need other kinds of accommodations may receive a 504 Plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 504 Plans are designed to ensure that each student receives equal access to public education and services. Learn about the similarities and differences between Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans.

Additionally, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination in admissions, access, programs, and benefits, such as financial aid, in post-secondary education programs that receive federal funding.

Public Access

Several laws, including the ADA, Section 504, and the Architectural Barriers Act, guarantee the rights of people with disabilities to have equal access to public places and services, including business like restaurants, stores, and hotels as well as telecommunication and transportation services. Additionally, the 1986 Air Carriers Access Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by all air carriers that operate in the United States.

Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by places of public accommodation by requiring most business and facilities to provide reasonable access and accommodation for all disabled customers, clients, and members of the public. Title III of the ADA requires that newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation, including publicly-accessible businesses and other locations like parks and recreation facilities, state and local government facilities, and commercial facilities like warehouses and office buildings, comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design." This essentially means that all new construction and modifications must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For existing facilities, barriers to services must be removed if it is readily achievable.

The ADA was enacted prior to widespread use of the internet by individuals and businesses. Therefore, Title III and DOJ regulations do not specifically address the internet or provide guidelines for website compliance. The number of ADA Title III website accessibility lawsuits (as well as Title III lawsuits overall) has been increasing for the past two years and it is reasonable to expect a continued increase in website accessibility and public access cases under Title III in the near future. Courts are split on whether the ADA limits places of public accommodation to physical spaces, and there is lack of clarity for website compliance under the ADA in light of actual and threatened legal action by plaintiffs’ attorneys across the country.