Disability Rights Law: Ensuring Fairness Against Discrimination

Sep 20 2023

As it appears on Super Lawyers

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on September 20, 2023

Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Nina T. Pirrotti

Understanding the laws that protect the rights of persons with disabilities

Federal and state laws protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in a range of contexts, including employment, public accommodations, and transportation.

If you have been treated in a discriminatory way because of your disability status, you have legal options to address the situation. The following is a brief overview of disability anti-discrimination laws and the contexts in which they apply.

Federal Protections Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

The primary federal law protecting individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Congress enacted the ADA to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights as people without disabilities in everyday contexts, including employment, access to stores, and transportation.

In response to Supreme Court decisions that limited the ADA’s scope, Congress updated the 1990 law with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), clarifying that the ADA should be broadly interpreted to cover as many individuals with disabilities as possible.

The ADA does not give an exhaustive list of specific disabilities. Instead, it broadly defines an individual with a disability as:

  • A person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities”;
  • A person who has a history or record of such an impairment; or
  • A person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

What is a “Major Life Activity?

What counts as a “major life activity” under the ADA? The law, as expanded by the 2008 Amendments, includes a wide range of activities and bodily functions, including but not limited to:

  • Seeing;
  • Hearing;
  • Speaking;
  • Sitting;
  • Standing;
  • Walking;
  • Eating;
  • Learning;
  • Performing manual labor; and
  • Caring for yourself.

Some states don’t have any human rights laws at all. In such states, you are limited either to federal statutes… or there may be recourse under tort law. As for those states that do have human rights laws… the federal law provides the minimum baseline you must abide by, but the state laws can be as robust as they choose to be. — Nina T. Pirrotti

What Are the ADA Titles?

The ADA has several sections or Titles that apply to different contexts.

Title I of the ADA: Employment

Employers with 15 or more employees are required to follow the ADA’s requirements against employment discrimination.

The protections offered by the ADA are effective before the employment relationship begins, so employers are prohibited from recruiting and hiring in discriminatory ways. This means that the employer cannot ask certain questions about a candidate’s disability status until an offer has been extended.

During the course of the employment relationship, the employer must provide reasonable accommodations so that the employee can perform the necessary work—which can include things like special work schedules and additional equipment.

Title II of the ADA: Local and State Governments

Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to give individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their public services, including:

  • Public education programs;
  • Government employment;
  • Recreation
  • Health care;
  • Social services;
  • Access to courts;
  • Access to voting; and
  • Access to town meetings.

Reports of Title II violations by public entities can be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice within 180 days of the date of disability discrimination.

Title II of the ADA: Public Transportation

Title II also applies to public transportation services, including buses and rail transit systems.

These systems cannot discriminate against people based on disability, and they must make a good-faith effort to purchase or lease vehicles that are accessible.

Unless it would create an undue burden, systems must provide a paratransit system—which pick up and drop off people who are unable to use traditional public transportation at their destinations.

Title III of the ADA: Public Accommodations

Title III of the the ADA requires that private entities that own or lease a place of public accommodation make their accommodations available to persons with disabilities.  Common public accommodations include:

  • Restaurants;
  • Hotels;
  • Theatres;
  • Retail stores; and
  • Commercial facilities.

There cannot be any exclusion, segregation, or unequal treatment of people with disabilities, and the ADA further requires certain architectural standards to make public accommodations accessible—ramps being a common example.

Finally, in some situations, accommodations may be required to modify procedures for people with disabilities.

Title IV of the ADA: Telecommunications

Title IV of the ADA mandates television and telephone common carriers to provide constant telecommunications relay services (TRS) for individuals with hearing or speech disabilities.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set minimum requirements for TRS devices, such as teletypewriters (TTY) or telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD).

The Federal Fair Housing Act

Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of a disability. This Act applies to both renting and buying. Housing cannot be denied to a person because of their disability.

Landlords must also allow people to make access-related modifications to their living space. The landlord will not be required to pay for these modifications, but they must allow them under the Act.

Landlords may also be required to make reasonable exceptions to policies. For example, blind tenants may be permitted to have a service dog even when there is a no-pet policy.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies to public schools.

Public schools must make “free and appropriate” education available to students with disabilities. This includes providing the least restrictive environment possible for the student to learn in, and schools might be required to provide aides or adhere to an education plan.

Who Enforces Disability Rights Laws?

When it comes to enforcing disability anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, one of several federal agencies may be involved, depending on the context in which the disability discrimination occurred.

Federal government agencies that enforce nondiscrimination laws include the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

State Legal Protections for Individuals with Disabilities

The federal laws discussed above provide the baseline of legal protections for individuals with disabilities. What about state-level anti-discrimination laws?

“Some states don’t have any human rights laws at all. In such states, you are limited either to federal statutes, which often provide only minimum protections, or there may be recourse under tort law—but sometimes employees are shut out completely,” says Nina T. Pirrotti, an employment and discrimination law attorney at Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti in New Haven, Connecticut.

“As for those states that do have human rights laws—Connecticut, where I practice, is one, as is New Jersey, California, and others—the federal law provides the minimum baseline you must abide by, but the state laws can be as robust as they choose to be,” she says.

For example, the ADA only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. So, if your employer is a small local business with only a few employees, it’s not covered by the ADA. “But in Connecticut, for example, under the Fair Employment Practices Act, you only need three employees in order to get protections,” says Pirrotti.

State laws not only apply to a wider range of businesses and employees, they often provide more robust legal protections and remedies.

“For example, even though the ADA has, over time, been amended to be more generous in terms of what constitutes a disability, the standard is still harder to meet under the ADA than it is under its state counterpart in Connecticut, which only requires a chronic impairment. So, while your disability might not meet the federal threshold, under state law, it might very well fall within the more generous definition of what constitutes a disability.”

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

Since state and federal laws may not provide the same level of legal protection, it’s important to ask at the beginning of any disability case whether you are protected and what law you should bring your claim under.

An experienced attorney will be able to help you evaluate your case and determine the appropriate cause of action. Lawyers provide many legal services to their clients beyond the initial consultation and assessment:

  • They can anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them;
  • Keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies; and
  • Interview witnesses, including employers or landlords who may have discriminated against you.

Ultimately, an attorney helps ensure that your legal rights are being enforced and that you have access to justice.

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To begin your search for an experienced disability law attorney in your area, visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box.

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