Disability Law


Disability law refers to laws related to individuals with disabilities; largely, these laws protect disabled individuals from certain kinds of discrimination, particularly regarding employment, housing, education, and access to public services. Today, disability law is largely regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

The ADA is codified in Title 42, Sections 12101-12213 of the U.S. Code.

In, 42 U.S. Code § 12102, the ADA defines a disability as any of the following three categories:

  1. "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual";
  2. "a record of such impairment"; or
  3. "being regarded as having such an impairment."

The ADA further requires that reasonable accommodations be made so as to provide individuals with disabilities equal opportunities. Agencies and departments charged with enforcement of the ADA include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Justice.

In Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999) the Supreme Court held that an individual is not considered "disabled" under the first category if the individual's impairment can be mitigated with medication or a device.  

"Substantially Limits"

The term "substantially limits" has led to litigation to determine the scope of the phrase. In Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), the Supreme Court clarified that the phrase means that "an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives."

"Major Life Activities"

In Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. 624 (1998), the Supreme Court held that a woman's ability to reproduce constitutes a major life activity. 

Mental Disabilities 

In Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), the Supreme Court stated that the ADA applies to individuals with mental disabilities. 

Other Statutes with Discrimination Protection

Other statutes prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities include the Fair Housing Act, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Air Carrier Access Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Fair Housing Act

Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to discriminate in any aspect of selling, renting, or denying housing because of an individual's disability. Owners are further required to make reasonable exceptions in their housing policies so as to afford equal housing opportunities to those with disabilities. Similar to the ADA, the Fair Housing Act has 3 ways for someone to be defined as having a disability:

  1.  individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  2. individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment
  3. individuals with a record of such an impairment 

The Fair Housing Act prohibits individuals from refusing to make “reasonable accommodations” to rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. A “reasonable accommodation” is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces. 

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. Its standards mirror those of the ADA.

In Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187 (1996), the Supreme Court held that while the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, the Government has sovereign immunity with respect to monetary damages tied to such discrimination.

Air Carrier Access Act

In DOT v. Paralyzed Veterans of America, 477 U.S. 597 (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 did not apply to airlines that receive government funding. In response, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act, regulating disability accommodations for all airlines, including commercial ones. 

Under the Air Carrier Access Act, air carriers are prohibited from discrimination against qualified individuals with physical and/or mental impairments.

However, private (see Gilstrap v United Air)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Finally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restricitve environment according to their needs.


State Protections

States may pass disability statutes as long as they are consistent with the ADA.

Further Reading

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  • Uniform Duties to Disabled Persons Act (adopted in Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, and Oklahoma)
  • Uniform Veterans' Guardianship Act (adopted in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Washington, and Wisconsin)
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