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Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is the short title of United States Public Law 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 (July 26, 1990), codified at et seq., signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H. W. Bush. It is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.

It affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics illegal. Certain specific conditions are excluded, including alcoholism and transsexuality.


The Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly referred to as the ADA, consists of three introductory sections and five titles:

  • Introductory Sections
    • Table of Contents
    • Findings and Purposes
    • Definitions
  • Main Section
    • Title I – Employment
    • Title II – Public Services (and public transportation)
    • Title III – Public Accommodations (and Commercial Facilities)
    • Title IV – Telecommunications
    • Title V

Groups who worked to pass the ADA

The ADA is notable because many disparate groups, many of which had never worked before, came together for a common purpose. In addition, other civil rights groups outside the disability community helped.

  • AIDS Action Council
  • AIDS National InterFaith Network
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • American Foundation for the Blind
  • Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT)
  • Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Handicapped
  • Association for Retarded Citizens
  • Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities
  • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
  • Dole Foundation
  • Eastern Paralyzed Veterans of America
  • Epilepsy Foundation of America
  • Human Rights Campaign Fund
  • Institution for Rehabilitation and Research
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
  • Legal Action Center
  • Mental Health Law Project
  • National Association of Developmental Disabilities Councils
  • National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems
  • National Center for Law and the Deaf
  • National Council of Independent Living
  • National Council on Disability
  • National Disability Action Centre
  • National Easter Seals Society
  • National Organization Responding to AIDS
  • Paralyzed Veterans of America
  • President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities
  • Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality
  • Spina Bifida Association of America
  • United Cerebral Palsy Association


On signing the measure, George H. W. Bush said,

“I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We’ve all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation; and we’ve been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred…. Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”


Inherent flaws

Some critics argue that enactment of the ADA has resulted in little progress in eliminating such discrimination because the remedies allowed under the law are primarily complaint-driven. That is, individuals must make complaints of discrimination to the person or agency charged with handling such complaints, only after which the agency may take action. Each title of the Act created an agency to handle such complaints, ranging from bodies of the federal executive branch to local civil rights enforcement agencies. Further, individuals under each title have the “private right of action”, that is, the right to privately sue the alleged discriminating person or body. Many of these lawsuits have helped to clarify provisions of the Act as the courts have interpreted the law in specific cases, creating a body of legal precedent.


Although it has greatly improved the quality of life for people with severe physical disabilities, the ADA has also been heavily criticized for being overinclusive in its reach. In turn, the ADA allegedly serves as a legal haven for malingerers and so-called “professional plaintiffs” who make a living out of suing noncompliant businesses and collecting monetary damages.

The ADA was the target of a vicious media backlash in mid-1997 after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published its ADA guidelines in March. For example, The Onion satirized the ADA with an article about the passage of the “Americans with No Abilities Act,” and The Simpsons ran an episode in which Homer Simpson tried to become grossly obese so he would be exempt under the ADA from a mandatory workplace fitness program.

The underlying debate is over whether the ADA should cover people with disabilities that are not totally and catastrophically disabling. Most people agree that a person with a severe physical disability like paraplegia should be accommodated. But they are less likely to agree when the disability in question is a mental illness, like clinical depression, or consists of minor neck or back pain (see neuropathy). Others believe that accommodation laws put too many restrictions on the free market and should be repealed.


  • Linda Hamilton Krieger, ed., Backlash Against the ADA: Reinterpreting Disability Rights (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).
  • Switzer, Jacqueline Vaughn. Disabled Rights: American Disability Policy and the Fight for Equality. Georgetown University Press, 2003.

ADA constitutionality-related cases

For cases determining the constitutionality of some of the ADA’s provisions, see:

  • Tennessee v. Lane
  • Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett

External links