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What is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Learn your legal rights under this landmark legislation, and how it helps to defend those with disabilities.

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush — and three decades on, this law continues to protect and serve the 1 in 4 Americans living with disabilities.

If you have a disability, learn what is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as your consumer rights and the avenues you can take if you experience discrimination.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The landmark legislation aims to advance and open up opportunities in workplaces, schools and communities across the US for those with disabilities. It assures equal access to employment, transportation and telecommunications, as well as state and local government programs.

Enforced by the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the ADA protects against discrimination, with the hope that people living with disabilities can fully participate in society and live self-sufficiently. Together with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), it offers civil rights protections to disabled persons — similar to other laws protecting individuals on the basis of race, sex, age and religion.

Which groups are protected by the ADA?

The ADA applies to disabled persons, as well as those who have a relationship with a disabled individual, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

To meet the ADA’s definition of disability, you must have:

  • A physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities”
  • A history of such an impairment

Some examples include:

  • Epilepsy
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Diabetes
  • HIV
  • Heart disease
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Orthopedic, speech, and hearing impairments
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Substance abuse addiction
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Visual impairments

The DOJ says you can also qualify if you’re “perceived by others to have such an impairment.” However, the DOJ doesn’t list all the impairments that are covered under the law.

What is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The ADA continues to work towards a more inclusive America, and it holds a range of federal agencies accountable. If you feel you’ve been discriminated against, you can file a complaint with the associated agency within 180 days.

The law divides disability rights into titles, or categories.

TitleAgencyConsumer rights
Title I: EmploymentUS Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)This title requires companies with 15 or more employees to give disabled persons access to the full range of employment opportunities.

More specifically, it:

  • Prohibits discrimination in hiring, promotions, training, pay and social activities
  • Restricts questions about an applicant’s disability before a job offer is made
  • Requires employers make “reasonable accommodations” for those with mental and physical limitations, unless it causes undue hardship. This may include offering a flexible work schedule or accessible parking, modifying training materials or equipment, or providing interpreters.
Title II: State and Local Government ActivitiesUS Department of Justice Civil Rights DivisionThis title mandates that disabled persons benefit from all state and local government programs, services and activities. It covers employment, transportation, recreation and healthcare, plus public education, voting and town meetings.

Governments are required to:

  • Design or alter their buildings to meet accessibility standards
  • Relocate programs and events from inaccessible older buildings
  • Find ways to effectively communicate with those who have hearing, speech or vision impairments
Title II: Public TransportationUS Department of Transportation Federal Transit AdministrationAn extension of Title II, this law specifies how public transport services need to cater to disabilities.

To comply, these services must:

  • Make newly purchased vehicles accessible
  • Purchase or lease accessible used vehicles
  • Offer paratransit while fixed-route bus or rail systems are under construction. This means you can be picked up and dropped off at your destination if you can’t use the new services on your own.
Title III: Public AccommodationsUS Department of Justice Civil Rights DivisionOne of the broader titles, this covers privately owned facilities that serve the public — such as restaurants, retail stores, private schools, hotels, cinemas, daycare centers, fitness clubs and stadiums.

Like employers and governments, these companies must operate in accessible buildings and make efforts to communicate effectively with disabled persons. They’re also required to:

  • Remove barriers in existing buildings, where possible
  • Run courses and exams at accessible locations, or offer alternatives
Title IV: Telecommunications Relay ServicesFederal Communications Commission (FCC)This title protects people with hearing and speech disabilities.

It requires phone companies to establish Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) 24/7, which allows callers to type messages to each other.

The FCC also mandates that all federally funded public service announcements are closed captioned.

What isn’t covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act?

While the ADA addresses many of the difficulties disabled persons may encounter in everyday life, it doesn’t cover all disabilities. For example, the ADA doesn’t consider major health conditions like cancer or multiple sclerosis disabilities, and depression and stress-related disorders are often judged on a case-by-case basis.

Other laws that protect those with disabilities

While the ADA is the most comprehensive law, there are others that address equal access for disabled persons, according to the DOJ.

These include the:

  • Air Carrier Access Act
  • Architectural Barriers Act
  • Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons
  • Fair Housing Act
  • Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
  • National Voter Registration Act
  • Rehabilitation Act
  • Telecommunications Act
  • Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

COVID-19, masks and disabilities: How the law comes into play

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that anyone who has trouble breathing or may become unconscious, incapacitated or unable to remove a face mask on their own should not wear a face mask or cloth face covering. In the context of disability, this may apply to those with autism, cerebral palsy, chronic asthma or post-traumatic stress disorder.

But some states and businesses are mandating customers wear a face mask in public to control the spread of the coronavirus.

While the law doesn’t address this directly, the Southeast ADA Center issued guidance around this on July 20th. It said government agencies and private businesses “must consider reasonable modifications to a face mask policy” to cater to those with disabilities.

The center listed some suggested concessions. These include allowing disabled persons to:

  • Wear a scarf or face shield instead of a mask
  • Place orders online or over the phone, with timely curbside pickup
  • Request phone or video calls and appointments

How many Americans are living with disabilities?

One in four Americans live with a disability, according to the CDC. This totals 61 million people.

Furthermore, the Council for Disability Awareness estimates that a quarter of today’s 20-year-olds will experience a disability before they retire. It also says 5.6% of working Americans suffer a short-term disability lasting six months or less each year.

When it’s worth buying disability insurance

These statistics underscore the importance of disability insurance. This coverage can replace a portion of your paycheck if you become disabled due to an injury or illness and cannot work. If you rely on your paycheck to survive, a policy can protect your livelihood and help you to cover your living and medical expenses.

In California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, employers are legally required to offer short-term disability plans to their employees. These policies typically replace 60% to 80% of your paycheck and last 3 to 12 months. If you live outside of those states, you can purchase a policy on your own.

For more protection, look into long-term disability insurance, which usually replaces 40% to 60% of your income for 2, 5 or 10 years, or until you retire.

Find a disability insurance policy that’s right for you

Disability insurance steps in if you cannot work due to an illness or injury. Each insurer has a different definition of disability, so use this table to compare policy features and prices.

1 - 2 of 2
Name Product Coverage Amount Benefit period Waiting period Own Occupation Medical exam required
JRC Life Insurance
$500 to $20,000
2 year to lifetime
30 - 365 days
Compare policies up to $10 million from 45+ top insurance companies with the click of a button.
Policygenius Disability Insurance
$100 to $20,000
2, 5, or 10 years or until age 65 or 67
60 - 365 days
Depends on provider
Get matched with one of 15 top life insurance companies to find the best coverage and rates for you.

Compare up to 4 providers

Bottom line

The ADA is enforced by government agencies, and it’s designed to prevent discrimination and open up access to those living with disabilities.

With over 60 million Americans experiencing short- or long-term disabilities, it’s worth looking into disability insurance. This coverage can replace a portion of your paycheck if you get ill or injured and can’t work for a specified period of time, so it can offer peace of mind for those who rely on their paycheck to survive.

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