The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is one of several disability-related laws and probably the one with which many Americans are most familiar. The purpose of the law is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA guarantees this for people with disabilities in all aspects of everyday life — from employment opportunities, to being able to purchase goods and services, to participating in state and local governments' programs and services. For a quick overview of the ADA read "The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Brief Overview".
Title I of the ADA protects the rights of both employees and job seekers. Title I applies to private-sector employers who employ 15 or more individuals, state and local governments, and employment agencies and labor organizations. The law prohibits these employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment. One of the key non-discrimination aspects of Title I is the requirement to provide reasonable accommodations for employees and job seekers with disabilities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has primary enforcement responsibility under Title I of the ADA. The EEOC has several fact sheets that describe how the ADA applies to employees with certain types of medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and epilepsy.
Two agencies within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) enforce parts of the ADA. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has coordinating authority along with the EEOC to enforce the employment-related (Title I) provisions of the law. DOL's Civil Rights Center (CRC) is responsible for enforcing Title II of the ADA. Title II bars disability-based discrimination by, and imposes affirmative disability-related responsibilities on, public entities, including state and local governments. The CRC, which is part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management (OASAM), also enforces Title II with regard to the programs, services and regulatory activities connected to labor and the workforce.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) is another law that prohibits disability discrimination. This law is divided into several sections as follows:
- Section 501 prohibits federal agencies from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in employment. It also requires these agencies to take affirmative action in hiring, placing and advancing of individuals with disabilities. In 2017, EEOC issued updates strengthening these requirements.
- Section 503 prohibits employment discrimination based on disability and requires affirmative action in the hiring, placement and advancement of people with disabilities by federal contractors or subcontractors. Contractors and subcontractors that have a contract with the Federal Government for $10,000 or more annually must take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment qualified individuals with disabilities. In addition, in 2013 OFCCP, which enforces Section 503, published a Final Rule that strengthened this aspect of the Rehabilitation Act. The new rule set a "utilization goal" for people with disabilities as 7 percent of employees in each job category or 7 percent of the total workforce. These changes were implemented to help increase the employment of people with disabilities by companies that do business with the Federal Government.
- Section 504 prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in employment and in their programs and activities. Each federal agency has its own set of Section 504 regulations that apply to its particular programs. For example, through Section 504 and the ADA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services works to make sure that doctor's offices, clinics and medical equipment are accessible to people with disabilities. DOL's CRC enforces Section 504 for the department as it relates to recipients of financial assistance. An award-winning documentary film, "The Power of 504," documents the events that led to the signing of Section 504 into law.
- Section 508 applies to Federal Government agencies and the technology providers that sell to them. This section of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all information and communications technology (ICT) the Federal Government develops, procures, maintains and uses be accessible to people with disabilities. This ensures that federal employees with disabilities have comparable access to, and use of, information and data just like federal workers without disabilities. The law also ensures that members of the public with disabilities receive comparable access to publicly available information and services. Section 508 applies to a wide range of technology products, including computer hardware and software, websites, video/multimedia products, phone systems and copiers.
An accessible information technology system is one that can be operated in a variety of ways and does not rely on a single sense or ability of the user. This is important because a system that provides output only in visual format may not be accessible to people who are blind or have low vision, and a system that provides information only in audio format may not be accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some individuals with disabilities may also need accessibility-related software or peripheral devices in order to use systems that comply with Section 508.
The U.S. Access Board develops guidelines for these technology products under Section 255, as well as standards for technologies covered by Section 508. The Access Board recently updated the Section 508 standards. The CRC also enforces the complaint provisions of this section.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), passed in 2014, is a law that focuses on assisting job seekers with and without disabilities in getting good jobs. The law also helps connect employers with skilled workers who benefit from education, skills training and career services from the workforce development system. WIOA helps improve the quality and accessibility of services that job seekers and employers receive at their local American Job Centers (AJCs). Title IV of WIOA amended Title I of the Rehabilitation Act. In addition, WIOA made several improvements to state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies, including the requirement to set aside at least 15 percent of their funding to provide transition services to youth with disabilities. WIOA also expanded VR's focus on employer engagement to provide work-based learning experiences and find competitive integrated employment for individuals with significant disabilities. This means work that is at minimum wage or higher, and with wages and benefits similar to those without disabilities performing the same work, and working alongside of coworkers without disabilities.
DOL's CRC enforces WIOA's Section 188 Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Regulations which prohibit disability-based discrimination by programs and activities that are offered as part of the public workforce development service delivery system. This includes job training for adults and youth and programs or activities provided by AJCs.
The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act authorized the Ticket to Work Program, which helps people ages 18 through 64 who receive Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income benefits to find and keep employment. This program also ensures that Social Security beneficiaries have a choice in obtaining rehabilitation and vocational services; removes barriers that require people with disabilities to choose between health care coverage and work; and promotes the goals of allowing more Americans with disabilities to participate in the workforce and to become financially independent.
Veterans with disabilities are protected by the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA). Enforced by OFCCP, this law requires federal contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to employ, advance in employment, and otherwise treat covered veterans without discrimination. Recent updates to VEVRAA also require that employers post available jobs with their local state employment service or another applicable employment service in their area so that covered veterans can get priority access to the job listings.
Individuals with disabilities also may be protected by state anti-discrimination laws, some of which are more stringent than the federal laws. To learn more about rights under state laws, contact your state's governor's office on disability issues.
U.S. Department of Labor Resources on Disability-Related Laws
- Disability Nondiscrimination Law Advisor
- Laws Enforced by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs
- Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act
- Frequently Asked Questions about the Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act
- Regulations Implementing the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act
- Employers and the Americans with Disabilities Act: Myths and Facts
Other Resources on Disability-Related Laws
- The ADA: Questions & Answers
- Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act New Rules: Fact Sheet
- Information about the Americans with Disabilities Act from the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion
- A Guide to Disability Rights Laws
- Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act