Overview of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Pub. L. No. 101-336, signed into law on July 26, 1990, mandates equal access for people with disabilities to employment, state and local government services, transportation, public accommodations and services provided by private entities, and telecommunications. The ADA uses the terms “disability” and “individual with a disability” rather than the terms “handicap” and “handicapped person” or “individual with handicaps.”1

Under the ADA, disability is defined in the following manner:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual such as walking, speaking, and breathing.
  • A record of such an impairment;
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment

As is true with the general public, 20% of the members of religious congregations have one or more disabilities. For purposes of the ADA, the definition of disability is very broad-based, and includes among others, mobility and sensory impairments, mental illness, mental retardation and learning disabilities. This definition of disability includes diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, respiratory and cardiac conditions and chronic back pain.

Key provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) include the following:
Title I: Employment

  • Employers may not discriminate against an individual with a disability in any aspect of the employment process, including hiring or promotion, if the person is otherwise qualified for the job.
  • Before an applicant has been given a job offer, employers may ask about the applicant’s ability to perform a job, but may not ask if the applicant has a disability, or subject the applicant to a medical examination or inquiry.
  • When asked, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to the known disability of qualified individuals. This includes job restructuring and modifications of equipment.
  • Employers do not need to provide accommodations that impose an undue hardship on operations. They do, however, need to determine the difficulty or cost of accommodations before attempting to establish an undue hardship defense.
  • Employers with 15 or more employees must comply with Title I requirements.
  • A religious organization or entity may give preference in the hiring process to individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on of its activities.
  • Those involved in the religious ministry, such as ministers, priests, or rabbis, are not covered by Title I.

Title II: Public Services
Subtitle A: State and Local Governments

  • Under the ADA, state and local governments may not discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities.
  • All local jurisdictions (cities, counties, towns, townships), regardless of size are required to undertake a self-evaluation and then develop and implement a transition plan.
  • All government facilities, services and communications must be accessible and consistent with the requirements of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and with the standards enforced by the Access Board (Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board…)

Subtitle B: Public Transportation

  • New public transit buses must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Transit authorities must provide comparable paratransit or other special transportation services to individuals with disabilities who cannot use fixed route bus service. This service must be provided unless an undue burden would result to the transit authority.

Title III: Public Accommodation

Private entities affecting commerce may not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. People with disabilities must be accorded full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services of a place of public accommodation. The categories of public accommodations provided by private entities are as follows:

  1. Place of lodging (inn, hotel)
  2. Establishment serving food or drink
  3. Place of exhibition or entertainment (theater, concert hall)
  4. Place of public gathering (auditorium convention center)
  5. Sales or retail establishment (grocery store, shopping center)
  6. Service establishment (hospital, gas station, lawyer’s office, bank, health care provider, Laundromat)
  7. Public transportation depots
  8. Place of public display or collection (library, museum)
  9. Place of recreation (park, zoo)
  10. Place of education (nursery, school, college, university)
  11. Social service center (shelter, food bank)
  12. Place of exercise or recreation (health spa, golf course, bowling alley)
  • It is discriminatory not to allow people with disabilities to have the full and equal enjoyment of any public accommodation.
    Title III of the ADA covers landlords who own and operate places of public accommodation, as well as tenants who lease or sublease the property.
    Eligibility criteria that screen out, or tend to screen out people with disabilities, are prohibited. This includes, for example, requiring the reporting of the existence of a disability on a credit application or requiring a driver’s license for identification where a picture identification is all that is necessary.
  • Public accommodations are required to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices and procedures whenever it is necessary to provide services to a person with a disability, unless the modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the service provided. For example public accommodations must allow service animals on the premises, even if they prohibit other animals.
  • Auxiliary aids and services must be provided to men, women and children with disabilities, unless an undue burden would result to the public accommodation.
  • Physical barriers in existing facilities must be removed, if removal is readily achievable. If not, alternative methods of providing the services must be offered, if they are readily achievable.
    All new construction and alterations of facilities must be accessible.

Title IV: Telecommunications

  • Companies offering telephone service to the general public must offer telephone relay services to individuals who use telecommunications devises for the deaf (TDDs) or similar devices.

Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

  • A state is not immune from an action in federal or state court for a violation of the ADA.
  • Reasonable attorney fees, litigation expenses and costs are recoverable by the prevailing party in an action or administrative proceeding. Note: Where applicable, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 provides compensatory and punitive damages and jury trials in ADA proceedings.
  • The Access Board has issued the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, which are available upon request.
  • ADA coverage shall extend to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
  • For the purposes of the ADA, the term “individual with a disability” does not include an individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.

ADA and Service Animals

The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself. “Seeing eye dogs” are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. This is the type of service animal with which most people are familiar. But there are service animals that assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Some examples include:

  • Alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds pulling
  • Wheelchairs or carrying or picking up things for persons with mobility impairments
  • Assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance

A service animal is not a pet. Owners are given definite rules to follow in keeping the animals alert to their duties.2

“Since service animals are a significant means of independence for those who use them, they must be an integral part of such persons’ welcome into any and all phases of church life. To exclude them is to diminish or deny the ability of their owners to play the role in the church which they are, indeed, invited to play. We cannot be inconsistent in our Christian welcome to the community of persons with disabilities.”3


Source: The ADA and the Religious Community, page 3-5, National Organization on Disability – Religion Program
1The Rehabilitation Act Amendment of 1992 (Amendment of Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. $$ 701-97
2U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section
3Opening Doors to People with Disabilities, The Resource File, NCOPD