The Legal Rights of People with Disabilities: An Overview

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Dec 12, 2019

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The legal rights of people with disabilities are guaranteed in a variety of federal and state laws. State laws sometimes provide more protection over these rights than their federal counterparts. These civil rights laws are usually found in statutes, regulations, and court decisions (also known as case law). The statutes are passed by Congress or state legislatures, and the details of the enforcement of those statues are usually contained in regulations drafted by the agency assigned to make sure people follow the law (also known as enforcement). When there are disputes over these rights, the decisions of the courts that decide these disputes provide further information about the meaning of these laws.

Employment Discrimination

The right to be free of discrimination based on a disability is clearly given under federal law in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Sections 501 and 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and the Rehabilitation Act applies to the federal government, federal contractors, and those employers that receive federal funds.

The rules prohibiting discrimination in the workplace apply to all aspects of employment. Persons with disabilities cannot be subjected to different testing and employment tests cannot be designed to eliminate people with disabilities. Disabled employees can’t be segregated, treated differently (other than to accommodate their needs), or deprived of benefits available to other employees.

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations that don’t create an undue hardship for them. That being said, disputes often arise over what is a reasonable accommodation. Physical access in the form of ramps, elevators, and handrails are one form of accommodation. A visually impaired employee may need Braille signs on elevators and other locations and a reader to assist in some aspects of his or her work. A hearing impaired employee may need a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD) and the services of a sign-language interpreter.

For more information about employment discrimination, see Employment Discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Housing Discrimination

Fair Housing rights are controlled by the Fair Housing Act, the ADA (see above) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with a few provisions in the Architectural Barriers Act. These laws protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the form of a refusal to rent, sell, or finance housing; access to common areas; segregation from other tenants; and the right to reasonable accommodations in the housing unit.

Under these laws, private landlords must allow reasonable changes to the unit at the tenant’s expense. When Section 504 applies, the owner or operator of the housing is required to pay for reasonable changes. Other accommodations may be required, such as a reserved parking space and exceptions to no-pet rules for service animals such as guide dogs.

For more information about housing discrimination, see Access to Housing: A Legal Right of the Disabled.

Education: Equal Access and Discrimination

The federal law controlling primary and secondary education for children with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under that law, any state that accepts federal money assumes the responsibility to provide appropriate primary and secondary education to all children with disabilities within the state.

Schools are required to provide all services the children need, not just educational services. For example, if the child needs catheterization or help eating, those services must be provided. Mainstreaming should be the goal of special education programs unless it would not be in the interest of the child. Each child has an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) that is approved by the parents and the school.

Discrimination in any post-secondary educational program that receives federal funds is prohibited under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This prohibits discrimination in admissions, access, or programs and benefits like financial aid.

For more information about equal access and discrimination in education, see Special Education and the Rights of the Disabled to Equal Access.

Public Access

A variety of laws, including the ADA, Section 504, and the Architectural Barriers Act (see the United States Access Board), guarantee the disabled access to public places and services. This includes access to all places of business open to the public, like stores, hotels, and restaurants. It also includes transportation and access to telecommunication services. The ADA doesn’t apply to airplanes, but the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986 prohibits discrimination against the disabled by air carriers operating in the U.S., including foreign carriers.

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Under most of these laws, someone who has suffered discrimination often has the choice of filing a complaint with the agency responsible for enforcement or filing a lawsuit. In some cases it is necessary to go through the agency procedure before filing a lawsuit, and in other cases it isn’t. There are also different time limits for making complaints with various agencies for various forms of discrimination. You should find out the time limits as soon as possible after you are aware that discrimination has taken place and seek the advice of an experienced civil rights attorney in your area who can help you fashion a case by applying the correct state and federal laws, file your case on time so you don’t miss important deadlines, and file a complaint first with an agency if that’s needed.

The agencies responsible for enforcing the federal laws are:


ADA — Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Section 503 — EEOC


Fair Housing Act: Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)


Section 504 — HUD

Architectural Barriers Act — U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board


IDEA — Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education

Section 504 — Office for Civil Rights (OCR) U.S. Department of Education

Public Access:

ADA: State and local government violation — U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division
Transportation — Office of Civil Rights Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
Public Accommodations — U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division
Telecommunications — Federal Communications Commission

Section 504 — Enforced by agencies providing federal funds. Contact the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division for information.

Architectural Barriers Act — U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board

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