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Disability Discrimination

Disability discrimination is the unequal treatment of an individual based on that individual's real or perceived disability. People with disabilities often need special assistance, such as larger rest room stalls or special parking spaces, so "equal" in this context refers to access and the right to be treated equally regardless of any accommodations. This section offers in-depth information about disability discrimination in a number of settings, including employment and public accommodations (access to buildings and businesses). You will also find an overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and links to other key federal laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to disability discrimination.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the main federal law protecting the disabled from discrimination in the areas of employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities (such as restaurants and stores), transportation, and telecommunications. This law protects individuals who have a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits" a "major life activity," which would include the ability to work or access a department store, for example. However, the ADA also covers those who are merely perceived as being disabled.

While there is no comprehensive list of what the ADA considers a disability, examples include reliance on canes or other assistive devices; confinement to a wheelchair; blindness; deafness; and certain types of mental illness.

Title I of the Act covers employment and is applicable to employers with at least 15 employees. If a reasonable accommodation can be made for a disabled employee, then the employer is required to do so. Installing an elevator for a wheelchair-bound employee probably would not be considered reasonable, but modifying equipment or providing a cubicle with easier access would be.

Disability Discrimination and the U.S. Supreme Court

As with most far-reaching legislation, certain details of the ADA have been ironed out in the courts, including the Supreme Court. Below are a few key Supreme Court cases that have further clarified the ADA since its passage in 1990:

  • Bragdon v. Abbot (1998) - The Court held that individuals who are HIV-positive (or perceived to be HIV-positive) are considered disabled under the ADA.
  • Murphy v. United Parcel Service (1999) - The Court ruled that a person's disability is determined with regard to the mitigating factors employed; in this case, the petitioner's impairment did not "substantially limit" any major life activities if properly medicated.
  • Sutton v. United Airlines (1999) - The Court further clarified the meaning of "disabled" under the ADA; the Court ruled that two severely myopic applicants for commercial pilot jobs were not discriminated against, but rather failed to meet the requirements of the job.

How to File a Public Accommodations Claim Under the ADA

If you believe you have been discriminated against on the basis of a disability when trying to access a restaurant, sports venue, school campus, or other public accommodation, you may want to file a claim. One way to get started is to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice with the following information:

  • Name, address, telephone number
  • Name and address of business or organization being accused of discrimination
  • Description of the act or acts considered discriminatory, including dates and names of people involved
  • Any other information that may help your case

Another option is to file a formal complaint in U.S. District Court.

Click on one of the links below to learn more about disability discrimination and applicable laws.

Learn About Disability Discrimination