Americans with Disabilities Act Overview: What It Covers and More

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July 26th marks the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act becoming law—an event that has played a major role in ensuring access, opportunity, and inclusion for those in our country with disabilities. But it’s not just the people protected by the law who are affected by it. This federal civil rights law affects business owners too. That’s why we wanted to provide an Americans with Disabilities Act overview.

Whether you operate a facility that’s open to the public or regularly work with clients that do, it’s well worth learning about or at least getting a refresher on the Americans with Disabilities Act, including its history and the impact it has today. In doing so, you can see why it’s such an important piece of legislation and why it’s so relevant to business owners… 

What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits any discrimination against people who have disabilities. The protection granted by this law extends to all areas of public life. This includes jobs, transportation, and any public or private places open and available to the public. 

What Is the Purpose of the ADA?

The purpose of the law is to ensure anyone with a disability has the same rights and opportunities as anyone without. Ultimately, it’s an “equal opportunity” law for individuals with disabilities. In fact, the ADA was partially modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which famously made discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and other characteristics illegal.

Who Is Protected by the ADA?

Qualified individuals with disabilities are protected by the ADA. The ADA does not specifically name all the impairments it covers. However, it does state that protection is granted to any person who…

How Did the ADA Come to Be?

In the late 1980s, the idea of creating an antidiscrimination act for people with disabilities began making its way through Congress. 

The original concept was first suggested by the National Council on the Handicapped (now the National Council on Disability, or NCD). The organization published its report Toward Independence, which featured legislative recommendations, in 1986. That report, combined with additional input and comments from presidentially appointed NCD members such as Dr. Michael Marge, was used to draft the first version of the ADA. This initial version was then introduced by Sen. Weicker and Rep. Coelho in the 100th Congress in 1988.

Of course, revisions were required. The disability rights community approached Senator Ted Kennedy to introduce a new version of the proposed ADA. Patrisha Wright, cofounder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) and a disability rights activist who was legally blind, spearheaded the community’s efforts. She assembled a team to support passage of the proposed bill. 

In 1989, a revised version of the ADA was introduced by Sen. Harkin, Sen. Durrenberger, Rep. Coelho, and Rep. Fish in the 101st Congress. Four months after it was introduced, the bill passed the Senate 76 to 8 in September 1989.

When Was the ADA Signed into Law?

Following several years of drafting and debate in the House and Senate, the ADA was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. More than 3,000 people attended the ceremony held on the South Lawn of the White House. 

“I supported the ADA because I think it was the fair and right thing to do. I think there are a lot of people who, if given access to the workplace, for example, can achieve things… It seemed to me that legislation was needed that provided as much fairness, as much access, as possible.”George H.W. Bush, 41st U.S. President

Was There Any Opposition to the ADA?

The act initially faced some opposition because of the costly upgrades it would have required many businesses and organizations to make to be compliant with ADA standards. Some religious groups, for example, opposed the ADA because it labeled religious institutions as “public accommodations.” This would have forced them to spend a significant amount of money to ensure accessibility for everyone. Ultimately, religious institutions were not labeled as “public accommodations” in the final version of the ADA.

Other business groups opposed the act too, including Greyhound Bus Lines. The company argued the act could significantly increase the price of public transportation, which would deprive many inner city and rural communities of their primary source of transportation.

Ultimately, enough edits and compromises were made that the bill was passed in Congress and signed into law. 

What Does the ADA Cover?

The ADA is divided into five sections, which are referred to as titles. Each title covers a different aspect of public life for individuals with disabilities. Further, each has its own set of regulations for what reasonable accommodations must be made for such individuals. 

The five titles of the ADA are as follows:

Title I (Employment)

People who have disabilities are entitled to access to the same employment opportunities and benefits that are available to people who do not have disabilities. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to any qualified applicants or employees, regardless of disability.

Title II (State and Local Government) 

This title prohibits any discrimination against qualified individuals who have disabilities in all programs and activities of public entities, including local governments, their agencies and departments, and any other special purpose districts of state or local governments.

Title III (Public Accommodations)

ADA-compliant unisex restroom sign with braille and blue pictograms on white background from Erie Custom Signs.

Private places of public accommodation are prohibited from discriminating against individuals who have disabilities. Examples include any owned, leased, or operated facilities, such as the following:

The title sets a minimum standard for accessibility at these facilities, as well as the alteration of existing facilities and the construction of new facilities.

Title IV (Telecommunications)

This title requires all telephone and internet companies to provide a national system of interstate telecommunications relay services that enable people who have speech or hearing disabilities to communicate over the telephone. This includes the closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements. This aspect of the ADA is regulated by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).

Title V (Miscellaneous Provisions) 

This title contains a wide variety of additional provisions relating to the entire ADA, including how it relates to other laws, state immunity, its impact on insurance providers and benefits, illegal use of drugs, attorney fees, and more. It also lists certain conditions that are not classified as disabilities.

Why Do Business Owners Need to Be Familiar with the ADA?

Business owners should have at least a general understanding of the ADA to avoid running into noncompliance issues. Title III of the ADA states that certain accommodations must be made for individuals with disabilities. Poorly designed or nonexistent features—such as improperly installed door handles, lack of wheelchair ramps, and even hard-to-read signage—can result in hefty fines or even lawsuits. In fact, when businesses don’t comply with the ADA, the maximum penalty for a first-offense violation is $75,000. 

But it’s more than just the potential financial consequences. Failing to learn about and comply with the ADA can also hurt an organization’s reputation. When certain visitors and/or customers don’t have the same access as everyone else, it reflects poorly on the business.  


Today, there is significantly better accessibility for people with disabilities in all types of facilities across the United States. And it’s due in large part to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although business owners don’t need to memorize the history of the ADA, understanding why it’s important and how it relates to public spaces is essential.   

At Erie Custom Signs, we specialize in developing signs for businesses and facilities of all types for the purposes of compliance with the ADA. For more information about the ADA and how you can uphold ADA standards through ADA-compliant signage, contact us today

Filed Under: ADA Signage

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