The ABCs of ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the nation's first comprehensive civil rights law to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications. The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. To read more about the history of the ADA click here. The ADA is organized into five “titles.” This guide gives an overview of each title and can help you understand what protections the law provides and how to file a complaint. 

Important Definitions

The ADA has many terms that may be unfamiliar to people. The ADA National Network provides an extensive glossary of terms used in the ADA which can be accessed here. Some of the most important definitions for you to understand are:

Disability: An individual with a disability is a person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;

  • Has a record of such an impairment; or

  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities: An activity that an average person can perform with little or no difficulty. Examples include:  caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

Public accommodations: Businesses that are generally open to the public and fall into one of the following 12 categories:

  1. An inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as the residence of such proprietor;

  2. A restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;

  3. A motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment;

  4. An auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;

  5. A bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;

  6. A laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;

  7. A terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;

  8. A museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;

  9. A park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;

  10. A nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;

  11. A day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and

  12. A gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation.

Qualified individual with a disability: An individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question.

Reasonable accommodation: A modification or adjustment provided by an employer to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations vary depending upon the needs of the individual applicant or employee. Examples include:

  • Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities (reading information posted on a bulletin board to a blind person);

  • Job restructuring, modifying work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position (allowing a diabetic employee to have regularly scheduled breaks during the workday to eat properly and monitor blood sugar and insulin levels); and

  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies, and providing qualified readers or interpreters (a deaf applicant may need a sign language interpreter during the job interview).

An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation for the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it is requested and would not impose an "undue hardship" on the operation of the employer's business. Additionally, an employee's request for a reasonable accommodation would be considered medical information subject to the ADA's confidentiality requirements.  

Undue hardship:  An employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it imposes an "undue hardship." Undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considering factors such as an employer's size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of its operation. Examples include:

  • An employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation; and

  • An employer is not obligated to provide personal use items such as glasses or hearing aids.

Title 1 - Employment

Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other aspects of employment. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations.

Title I of the ADA also covers:

Medical Examinations and Inquiries - what employers can and cannot ask:

  • Employers may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability.

  • Applicants may be asked about their ability to perform specific job functions. A job offer may be conditioned on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required for all entering employees in similar jobs. Medical examinations of employees must be job related and consistent with the employer's business needs.

 Drug and Alcohol Abuse:

  • Employees and applicants currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs are not covered.

  • Tests for illegal drugs are not subject to the ADA's restrictions on medical examinations.

  • Employers may hold illegal drug users and alcoholics to the same performance standards as other employees.

It is unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on disability or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADA.

The above information is provided by the EEOC.  To learn more, click here.

Title II – State and Local Government (including Public Transportation)

Title II of the ADA prohibits public entities (state and local governments) from discriminating against people with disabilities by excluding them from services and activities due to their disability. Title II is divided into two parts. Subtitle A covers all programs, services, and activities of state and local government. Subtitle B contains requirements for public transportation systems such as regional transit authorities, city buses, subways, commuter rail service and Amtrak.

Title II states that people with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from state and local governments’ programs, services, and activities. Title II requires that all new buildings constructed by a state or local government be accessible. If an existing building is altered, the altered part must also be accessible.

Examples of entities bound by Title II include: state executive agencies, courts, legislatures, towns, cities, counties, school districts, universities, community colleges, water districts, special purpose districts, regional transit authorities, and Amtrak. 

Examples of services and activities covered by Title II include: Applying for a business license, using a town playground, participating in a county fair, registering to vote, and attending a public university.

Title II does not apply to the Executive branch of the federal government, which instead is regulated by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

To  learn more about Title II click here.

Title III - Public Accommodations

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in places of public accommodation. As described above the ADA recognizes 12 categories of public accommodations.  Examples of public accommodations include: restaurants, hotels, theaters, retail stores, shopping centers, dry cleaners, laundromats, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, hospitals, museums, libraries, parks, zoos, amusement parks, private schools, day care centers, gyms, and bowling alleys. Title III applies to all places of public accommodation.  Note that religious organizations and private clubs are not considered public accommodations and are not bound by Title III.

Title III requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities—to comply with the ADA Standards.

There is a misconception that old buildings are “grandfathered” or exempt from complying with the ADA.    This is not correct. Title III states that existing buildings (those built before the effective date of the ADA), must remove architectural barriers as long as the removal is “readily achievable.” The ADA defines readily achievable as “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.” Because of this misconception, there are many smaller businesses in older buildings that are still not very accessible.  To learn more about this click here.

Title IV - Telecommunications Relay Services

Title IV addresses telephone and television access for people with hearing and speech disabilities. It requires common carriers (telephone companies) to establish interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services (TRS) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. TRS enables callers with hearing and speech disabilities who use TTYs (also known as TDDs), and callers who use voice telephones to communicate with each other through a third-party communications assistant. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set minimum standards for TRS services. Title IV also requires closed captioning of Federally funded public service announcements. This information and information about how to contact the FCC can be seen in this report provided by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

Title V - Miscellaneous Provisions

Title V includes miscellaneous provisions that are intended to apply broadly across all the other titles. The Mid-Atlantic ADA Center provides information about the Title V provisions here. Some of the most significant provisions of Title V include:

  • The ADA does not invalidate or override any other laws (federal, state, or local) that provide equal or greater protections or remedies for people with disabilities.

  • Exclusion of certain conditions, regardless of whether they are impairments, from the definition of disability. These conditions include transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, other sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs. Homosexuality and bisexuality, since they are not impairments, cannot be considered disabilities under the ADA.

  • An individual cannot make a claim of “reverse discrimination” under the ADA.

How to file an ADA complaint

The way you file an ADA complaint varies depending on what type of discrimination is involved (which title applies). 

Title I employment complaints must be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. Note you can only file a private lawsuit against an employer if you have first filed a complaint with the EEOC and received a “right to sue” letter. 

EEOC does not accept complaints on line or by phone. You can file a complaint in person at any of the 53 EEOC field offices which are listed here. You can also file your complaint with the EEOC by mail. To learn more about how to file an EEOC complaint click here.

Title II complaints against state or local governments can be filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) or you can bring a private lawsuit. It is not necessary to file a complaint with the DOJ prior to initiating a private lawsuit in Federal Court.

Title III complaints against public accommodations can be filed with the DOJ or you can bring a private lawsuit in Federal Court. It is not necessary to file a complaint with the DOJ prior to initiating a private lawsuit in Federal Court.

You can file a Title II or III complaint with the DOJ online, by email, by USPS mail or by fax. The ADA National Network  provides a good overview of how to file a Title II or III complaint with the DOJ  here.     

Additional Resources:


This guide was developed as part of a project made possible by a grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Lead researchers/authors: Krystle Rivera, J.D. Candidate, 2020, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law; Helen Livingston Rapp, Esq., RedTreehouse.org Volunteer