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Special Education Law Part III: The Americans with Disabilities Act

In two previous posts, I have addressed special education laws in terms of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  The remaining major act that applies to individuals with special needs in the education system is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, amended in 2008; that is, the ADA.  Like Section 504, the ADA is not strictly an education law.  It is civil rights law, meaning that it is administered by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in such cases as it applies to special needs in education, but the ADA provides additional coverage to students and staff members with disabilities over Section 504 which I will detail here.

The ADA is probably the easiest to understand of the three sets of laws I have discussed here.  It was enacted in 1990 to ensure that individuals with disabilities were afforded the same rights and access to public services as non-disabled individuals.  The law is similar in wording to some of the acts prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation by employers or properties subject to federal funding or publicly accessible properties.  Here are some of the requirements for compliance with the ADA as they relate to education:

  • Employers of 15 or more employees (such as public school systems or private schools) may not discriminate against employees or potential employees on the basis of a disability
  • Employers must accommodate the disability of an employee, such as providing accessible restrooms or private facilities for the administration of diabetic medication, unless ‘undue hardship’ would result
  • Public facilities, including schools, must not discriminate or restrict access to property on the basis of a disability
  • Aids or services must be provided to accommodate individuals with vision or hearing impairments, such as audio amplification, accessibility to a TDD, or Braille signage
  • Public bus systems, including school buses, ordered after 1990 must be accessible to individuals with disabilities OR an alternative must be provided (this includes providing specially accessible buses to serve students whose normal bus route might not be served by an accessible bus)
  • Depending on the case, new building facilities must be accessible, including elevators where appropriate


There are a few key things to keep in mind when considering whether or not ADA applies in your particular case.  The first is that not all accommodations are required in all situations; for example, in a public school built before 1990, elevators are not required unless major renovation work occurs in the school (in which case elevators would probably be required to adhere to building code).  Additionally, accommodations are not required in cases where there provision would create an ‘undue hardship’ for the employer or property owner; this generally applies in smaller private companies.  Certain private clubs and organizations are exempt from these requirements.  Finally, though Section 504 applies to students’ accommodations to receive equal access to education, the ADA serves mainly to ensure disabled individuals’ access to and participation in activities and facilities.  This means that staff members with disabilities are covered under the ADA as well.

Special education law is complex, and you should of course consult your school administrators or your school district’s legal counsel if a particular concern arises.  However, I hope these brief overviews were helpful for you!  Please continue to post questions or comments here, and I will address them as quickly as possible.

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