Americans with Disabilities Act

  • August 10, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Daniel Mach, Director, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief


    Do religious institutions get a categorical free pass to discriminate against certain employees, regardless of the reason?  That issue lies at the heart of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.  In a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday by the ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan, and a coalition of religious liberty organizations, we argue that the answer must be a resounding "no."

    The case involves a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) filed by the EEOC and Cheryl Perich, a school teacher of primarily nonreligious subjects like social studies, math, and science, against Hosanna-Tabor, a church-run Lutheran grade school.  Perich and the EEOC claim that the school summarily fired Perich after she took a leave of absence to treat her narcolepsy and in retaliation for asserting her ADA right to be free from such discrimination.

    In response, Hosanna-Tabor has argued that, under a "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws like the ADA and Title VII, the federal courts are constitutionally barred from even considering Perich's claims.  As interpreted by the lower courts, the ministerial exception generally grants a religious organization immunity from employment discrimination suits brought by "ministerial" employees -- that is, those employees primarily engaged in leading the faith and advancing its religious mission.  (Until now, the Supreme Court has never squarely addressed this issue.)  The court of appeals in the Hosanna-Tabor case, however, refused to apply the exemption to Perich's claims, and we agree that the case should go forward.

  • July 30, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Roger Bearden, Director of the Disability Law Center at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). For more information about NYLPI, visit its Web site.


    We have much to celebrate on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but for many individuals with disabilities who continue to be confined in institutions, their day of celebration has yet to come.

    The ADA set out a comprehensive mandate to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities. While some forms of discrimination are apparent, others have proven more insidious, such as the decades-old practice of confining individuals with disabilities to institutions.

    In Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), the Supreme Court considered the case of two women in Georgia who each had been confined in a state psychiatric hospital for several years despite the determination by their treating professionals that they could live and receive care in the community. The Court held that unjustified isolation of individuals with disabilities violated the ADA and an individual with mental illness may sue a state for failing to serve him or her in the most integrated setting appropriate to his or her needs.

  • July 27, 2010

    Twenty years after enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law faces a new challenge: adapting to changing technology and the Internet, says Kareem Dale, President Barack Obama's top disability advisor in an interview with The Washington Post.

    In celebrating the law's 20th anniversary, Dale points out the "sea change" of progress that has been made, with developments as simple as curb cuts on street corners for wheelchairs and Braille in hotel rooms, "but we're not done," he qualifies, citing the lack of clarity as to whether websites have to comply with the ADA.

    "Many courts have said no and maybe a couple have said yes, but it's been an open question," Dale said.

    Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the Department of Justice will soon seek comment on four proposed rules that would create accessibility requirements for websites, movies, equipment and 911 call-taking technology, Main Justice reports.

    Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, has said in the past that ADA applies to websites, according to Main Justice.

    "Companies that do not consider accessibility in their website or product development will come to regret that decision, because we intend to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to technology and the worlds that technology opens up," Perez said in April.

    During the event commemorating the 15th anniversary of the American Association of People with Disabilities, Holder announced the creation of a new position, special assistant for disabilities, under the deputy associate attorney general for diversity management.

    President Obama also issued a public service announcement in honor of the ADA's anniversary.

    View ACSblog commentary on the ADA at 20:

    • Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the original sponsors of the ADA, looks back at the progress made from "pre-ADA America," when people with disabilities "had to crawl on their hands and knees to go up the stairs," but calls it shameful that young people with disabilities are housed in institutional settings like nursing homes.
    • Emily Benfer, director of the new Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, authored an issue brief on the necessity of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. In a new guest post, Benfer highlights the importance of education and coalition-building in furthering the ADA's goals.

    Here is some other notable commentary:

    • "Is the ADA DOA?" asks workplace and labor columnist Eve Tahminciolglu. She points to "pretty sad numbers" from a recent study, showing that 61% of people say the act has made no difference in their life, while 23% report the act has made their life better. She urges stronger enforcement of the act in a blog on The Huffington Post.
    • Bloomberg News Executive Editor for Washington Albert R. Hunt also writes that employment problems persist 20 years after the ADA's passage - the jobless rate for disabled people is double that of "able-bodied workers" - but said "progress, in politics, business and social mindsets is impressive," citing as one recent victory the health care bill's ban on health insurance companies' denial of coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.
    • Fifty percent of people with disabilities are not working, the same as 20 years ago, according to Andy Imparato, president of the American Association for People with Disabilities. In a PBS Newshour interview, Imparato says the official unemployment figure of 14 percent is misleading because it counts only those who are actively looking for work, and many have given up. View a video segment here 
    • The Guardian's Michael Tomasky asks, "Would the ADA pass today?" While "it is agreed nearly across the spectrum - nearly - that this was a good thing," Tomasky points to Senate candidate Rand Paul's (R-KY) comment that requiring businesses to provide access isn't "fair to the business owner." "Paul is more extreme than your average Republican, but it does make one wonder whether today's Republican Party would have supported the ADA," Tomasky writes.
  • July 26, 2010

    By Emily Benfer, director of the newly created Health Justice Project and a clinical professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Benfer authored an issue brief on amendments to the ADA available here.


    In honor of the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Senate unanimously passed S. Res. 591. The resolution describes the prejudice and discrimination faced by people with disabilities and the importance of the ADA to the provision of "equality of opportunity, independence, economic self-sufficiency, and full participation for Americans with disabilities." Sen. Tom Harkin, an original sponsor of the ADA who introduced the resolution, stated, "The ADA has broken down barriers, created opportunities and transformed lives."

    It certainly has moved us away from the appalling pre-ADA past, one in which people with disabilities were forcibly isolated, institutionalized, excluded and socially outcast. As Senator Harkin recalled, people with disabilities were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to climb a flight of stairs. They lacked access to employment, education, public facilities, voting, and a host of other activities. They were subjected to intolerance and stereotypes on a daily basis. In sum, people with disabilities were denied the opportunity to fully participate in society - a form of exclusion that the society recognizes as discrimination.

    We have made great strides in twenty years, opening doors to employment, civic involvement and public places. In fact, we have all benefited from the accommodations made possible by the ADA. Everyone - from people in wheelchairs to people pushing strollers or riding bikes - enjoys the assistance of curb cutouts at street corners. Thanks to accessible voting machines, our democracy is better informed and more just. Our workplaces and schools are more productive and ingenuous because of the diversity of experiences and ideas commingling in inclusive environments.

    But our work is not finished. We must oppose any stalemate in progress and be vigilant, guarding against all attempts to narrow the scope of opportunity and protection. Such attempts are commonplace, as demonstrated by the need for the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. The ADA Amendments Act was necessary to restore the original broad scope of the ADA and overturn the Supreme Court's narrowing of it.

  • July 26, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). Sen. Harkin is Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.


    The Americans with Disabilities Act - signed into law on July 26, 1990 - has been described as the Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities. It sets four goals for people with disabilities: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

    But at its heart, the ADA is simple. In the words of one activist, this landmark law is about securing for people with disabilities the most fundamental of rights: "the right to live in the world." It ensures they can go places and do things that other Americans take for granted.

    I will always remember a young Iowan named Danette Crawford. In 1990, she was just 14. She used a wheelchair, and lived with great pain. But she campaigned hard for the ADA. When I told her that the ADA would mean better educational opportunities, and prevent workplace discrimination, Danette said: "Those things are very important. But, you know, what I really want to do is just be able to go out and buy a pair of shoes like anybody else."

    Two decades later, people with disabilities can do that - and so much more. The ADA has changed America in ways largely invisible to most citizens, but profoundly transformative for tens of millions of Americans with disabilities.