Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to prohibit discrimination against those with disabilities. The statute, first enacted in 1990, applies in the areas of employment, public accommodations, transportation, services offered by governmental entities, and other areas. The act attempts to extend the types of rights provided under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to those with disabilities. Included among the right in the ADA are provisions requiring educational institutions to provide accommodations to those with disabilities.
The first success the disability rights movement had was with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Based on the models of previous laws that prohibited discrimination based on race or gender, Section 504 prohibits discrimination in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. It provides: “No otherwise qualified individual with handicaps in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This provision marks the first time the disabled were viewed as a class of people, similar to a race or gender. The disabled used Section 504 to demand and enforce equal footing as a class under the law, one that could demand facilities to accommodate their disability.
Although this language offered some protection from educational discrimination for those with disabilities, Section 504 did not go far enough. It only applied in limited situations, where the program or building used federal financial aid in the form of grants. Those with disabilities still faced discrimination in the private sector, in private schools, and in those public facilities that did not use federal grant money. The disabled still faced a great many inaccessible schools; testing situations that did not offer alternatives for the deaf, the blind, or those with other types of disability; and other, similar barriers to equal education and access.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed on July 26, 1990, and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The intention of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to fill the gaps left behind by Section 504. The ADA builds upon the legal language within Section 504, so that applied together, both laws would cover almost any situation, public or private, that the disabled might encounter.
The ADA bars employment and educational discrimination against “qualified individuals with disabilities.” Title II of the ADA applies specifically to educational institutions, requiring them to make educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, and facilities open and accessible to all students. The ADA applies equally to public and private sector institutions, although the requirements for private schools and institutions are slightly less stringent.