What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

What is the ADA?

You might see the acronym ADA around but not know much about it. If you had asked me about it a few months ago, I would have said, “Do you mean the American Dental Association?”. Although that is another meaning for ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act is so much more. 

Imagine with me for a minute, what it would be like to be blind in a busy airport. Would it be disorienting? Would it be easy to find help or the information that you need to catch your flight? What if you were deaf? Would it be frustrating to not hear the announcements of flights landing or leaving? The ADA was designed to help bridge the gap between people like the examples above and people who were born without disabilities.

The ADA is modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law which strictly prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, or sex – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids employers and organizations from discriminating or denying people with disabilities the equal opportunity to receive program services and benefits.

So, the ADA is an equal opportunity law for individuals with any form of disability.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that there are about 61 million Americans with a disability at the time this article was written. I’m going to say that again, 61 million Americans have a disability. Let this number sink in. That is nearly 1 in 5 US adults with some form of disability. Worldwide, this number is closer to 1 billion. There is a 20% chance that you, the person reading this article, is someone with a disability or perhaps you know someone with a disability. If that’s the case, I hope the information contained within is not harmful or offensive in any way. You can see why the ADA is so important now, right?

The ADA became law on July 26,1990 and was signed into effect by President George H.W. Bush. That was an important milestone for the handicapped community. However, this fight for equal opportunities has been ongoing since the early 1800s. This fight is far from over and we continue to see advances in awareness every day.

What is the history of the ADA?

Early 1800s

As mentioned earlier, disability activists have been organized since the 1800s. During this time period, people with disabilities were severely mistreated. They were considered pitiful individuals who could contribute nothing to society. They were often ridiculed and mocked or put on display at circuses and shows. It was common practice to sterilize individuals with disabilities as a “merciful act” to end the suffering of future generations. Asylums and institutions often took them in as patients and cared for them their entire lives. An unfortunate stigma grew from this behavior and the handicapped community faded into the background.


The League of the Physically Handicapped was formed during this period. The League was formed by young New Yorkers and was based in New York. This group fought for employment for people with disabilities during the Great Depression. The League disbanded in 1939 and would go on to inspire the New York City Disability Rights Movement.


Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States of America. What is significant about Franklin D. Roosevelt? He was the first president to have a major disability. He was parlyzed from the waist down, although he wasn’t born this way. While on vacation with his family, he fell ill with what is considered to be the Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rapid-onset muscle weakness caused by a failing immune system. Roosevelt was a big advocate for disability awareness and was the first and only president to serve four terms.


The National Association for Retarded Children (NARC) was formed by several local groups in Minneapolis, MN. This name doesn’t hold up well but it was a step towards the progress and change we see today. By 1960, NARC had thousands of members. The members sought alternative options to care for their children. They didn’t want to place them in institutions. This group is still actively fighting for equal opportunities today and has updated their name to The Arc. 


The Civil Rights Act was enacted under President Lyndon B. Johnson. This act paved the way for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by defining civil rights and discrimination under the law.


The Rehabilitation Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. This was the first that that the exclusion of people with disabilities was recognized as discrimination by law. Section 504 of this Act banned discrimination against handicapped people in programs with federal assistance.


The Education of All Handicapped Children Act was enacted under President Gerald R. Ford. The Act ensured the public educational rights of children with disabilities.


The Americans with Disabilities Act was established and signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush (see above). The Act bans discrimination based on disabilty. It requires public accommodations to be accessible. This was a huge milestone for the disabled community.

What disabilities does the ADA cover?

Disability is a broad term. It is difficult to define. The ADA defines disability as: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. But, what does that mean?

With this definition, the ADA covers the following three categories of disabilities:

  1. Substantial physical/metal limitations:

These are activities such as talking, walking, seeing, hearing, or learning.

  1. A history of disability

For example, cancer that is in remission.

  1. The disability is not considered temporary

The disability is not going to last shorter than 6 months. For example, a broken wrist.

What are the five titles in the ADA and what do they mean?

Title I: Employment

People with disabilities should have the same employment opportunities and rights as anyone else. This forbids discrimination in any aspect of employment, including: hiring, promotions, training, pay, layoffs, and firing.

Learn more about equal employment

Title II: Public Services

This Title deals with public entities and transportation. This requires accommodations for wheelchairs on public transportation. People must have equal access to all state and local public housing.

Learn more about equal housing

Title III: Public Accommodations

All people must have equal access to the goods, services, accommodations, and facilities of any public place. For example, braille signs must be included in public spaces or wheelchair accessible ramps must be installed.

Learn more about accessible public accommodations

Title IV: Telecommunications

Title IV covers telephone, internet, and radio. It requires that all telecommunications companies take steps to ensure accessibility for all people regardless of disability. This Title includes the internet. Websites and web apps have become a virtual public gathering place. Websites must be accessible for people with disabilities. The web doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the United States government, so there is still a lot of grey area here. The web is governed by a group called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C has established a set of guidelines to ensure that your website is as accessible as possible with our current technology. This list is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 checklist.

Learn more about WCAG 2.1

Title V: Provisions

Provisions essentially means that people who chose to exercise their rights under the ADA are protected from discrimination.

Learn more about Title V

What does the ADA mean for my business?

The answer to this question is… It depends? If you have a physical location, you should have accessible features added to your building. This may be a wheelchair ramp added to the front stairs. Maybe you need to add an elevator. Are your bathrooms accessible? Envision entering your business with a disability that limits your movement. What difficulties do you experience? Find a way to fix those.

Title IV addresses the internet and accessibility. Review your website. Are there any issues that someone with a screen reader would have? Do you have any screens that someone could get keyboard trapped in, meaning they can’t escape the screen using only their keyboard?

Sometimes, we don’t have all of the tools or expertise to fix the issues ourselves. Maybe we don’t know how to pour a concrete wheelchair ramp. In these situations, it’s best to find someone who can get the job done right. Lemonade Stand offers the help you need to ensure your website is ADA compliant and accessible. We put people first, because that’s what this is all about. Check out our other article here to learn more about the ADA compliant services we offer at Lemonade Stand and how it can help you!

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