The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. This includes the ability to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs and services.
The ADA covers all people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities such as walking, speaking, lifting, hearing, seeing, reading, sleeping, eating, concentrating or working. This means that the ADA covers injured service members including those with traumatic brain injury, spinal injury, loss of a limb, vision or hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. If you have a substantial impairment, this law covers you regardless of whether you are receiving benefits or other entitlements related to your disability.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified employees or job applicants based on their disability, including any eligibility standards that unfairly screen people with disabilities. The act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, which means changing the work environment or job duties to eliminate barriers that keep you from being able to perform the job.
Typical examples of reasonable accommodations include providing flexible scheduling so that an employee with a disability like post-traumatic stress disorder can attend counseling sessions, providing a parking space close to an entrance for an employee who has difficulty walking, allowing an employee to bring a service animal to work and providing specialized equipment for an employee who has lost a hand or arm.
Businesses that provide goods and services to the public, such as grocery stores, bars, restaurants and medical offices, must make reasonable accommodations in their policies, procedures and practices so that people with disabilities can be their customers. Examples of reasonable accommodations include modifying a no-pet policy to allow a service animal into a business and modifying a gym membership policy so you can bring an aide.
Businesses must communicate effectively with customers who have vision, hearing or speech disabilities. The businesses, not the customers, are responsible for providing the necessary tools or services. Effective communication accommodations may include, but are not limited to, reading a menu to someone with impaired vision and providing a large-print copy of a rental contract.
Businesses must also remove architectural barriers when it is readily achievable to do so. Typical examples of barrier removal include installing a ramp, providing accessible parking spaces and lowering a paper-towel dispenser. All facilities built since the ADA went into effect must be accessible to and usable by people who have mobility or sensory disabilities.
State and local governments must modify activities and services to comply with the ADA. Public services include public trade schools, community colleges, libraries, public hospitals, parks, public transportation, etc. Governments must follow ADA rules concerning policy modification, effective communication and facility construction similar to the rules that businesses follow.
All programs must be accessible, but not all facilities necessarily have to be accessible. Governments can choose whether to remove barriers at an inaccessible facility, move a program to an accessible facility or find another way to enable you to participate. Typical examples of modifications by a state or local government are relocating a public meeting to a wheelchair-accessible location and allowing library book drop-off by mail. Cities or counties that employ more than 50 people must have an ADA coordinator. State agencies should have an ADA coordinator as well.
Other protections for service members with disabilities
There are other federal disability rights laws that cover housing, air travel, telecommunications, federal programs and other topics. More information about these laws can be found in A Guide to Disability Rights Laws.
In addition, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act prohibits discrimination against employees or job applicants on the basis of their military status or military obligations. It also protects the reemployment rights of people who leave civilian jobs to serve in the uniformed Services. It applies to all veterans, not just those with Service-connected disabilities. Under USERRA, employers must make reasonable efforts to help returning employees become qualified for reemployment in the positions they would have attained if they had not left for military duty or in comparable positions.
Across the United States, independent living centers provide information about benefit programs and other services for people with disabilities. Find out how to contact your local center by calling 800-949-4232 (voice/TTY). State vocational rehabilitation agencies also offer services to help people with disabilities enter or return to employment. State-by-state contact information is available through the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.
For service members seeking more information about the ADA, The ADA: Know Your Rights – Returning Service Members with Disabilities booklet explains the ADA in depth and provides links to other helpful publications and additional contact information for many different agencies. Additional information is also available on the ADA website or by calling 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY).