Understanding the Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities for more than 25 years, making sure they have the same opportunities as everyone else to be part of everyday American life. The ADA protects the ability of people with disabilities to enjoy job opportunities, buy goods and services and take part in state and local government programs and services.

People protected under the ADA are living with a physical or mental impairment that greatly limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, speaking, lifting, hearing, seeing, reading, sleeping, eating, concentrating or working. The ADA covers injured service members with a military disability, such as traumatic brain injury, spinal injury, loss of a limb, vision or hearing loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder.


The ADA makes it illegal to refuse to hire qualified people based on disability. Employers are also required to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities, such as:

  • Flexible scheduling
  • A parking space close to an entrance
  • Allowing service animals in the workplace
  • Providing special equipment

Access to goods and services

Per the ADA, businesses that offer goods and services to the public must make adjustments to how they do business so that people with disabilities can be their customers. Businesses covered by the ADA include:

  • Grocery stores
  • Bars and restaurants
  • Medical offices
  • Gyms
  • Sports arenas and concert halls

All buildings built since the ADA went into effect must provide easy-to-use access to people who have movement or sensory disabilities. Changes businesses might make include:

  • Reading a menu to someone with impaired vision
  • Providing a large-print copy of a rental contract
  • Installing a ramp
  • Providing accessible parking spaces
  • Lowering a paper-towel dispenser

Access to public services

State and local governments must also follow ADA rules and make changes to activities and services. Public services include:

  • Public trade schools
  • Community colleges
  • Libraries
  • Public hospitals
  • Parks
  • Public transportation

All programs must be available to people with disabilities but not all buildings have to be accessible. Governments can choose whether to:

  • Correct access problems at an inaccessible building
  • Move a program to an accessible building
  • Find another way to allow disabled persons to participate.

Some resources for service members with disabilities include:

  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The USERRA says employers have to make reasonable efforts to help employees coming back to work become qualified for either the job they would have had if they hadn't left for military duty, or another similar job.
  • A Guide to Disability Rights Laws. This document explains the other federal disability rights laws that cover housing, air travel, telephone use and federal programs.
  • Independent living centers.The centers provide information about benefit programs and other services for people with disabilities. Find out how to contact your local center by calling 800-949-4232.
  • State vocational rehabilitation agencies. The agencies provide services to help people with disabilities find job. State contact information is available through the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.
  • The ADA website. More information is can be found on the website or by calling 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY).

Learn more by reading the booklet "The ADA: Know Your Rights — Returning Service Members with Disabilities" to learn about the ADA in depth, find links to other helpful publications, and get contact information for many different agencies.