Americans with Disabilities Act

What is the law?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADA/AA) are the civil rights guarantee for persons with disabilities in the United States. They provide protection from discrimination for individuals on the basis of disability. The ADA and ADA/AA extend civil rights protections for people with disabilities to employment in the public and private sectors, transportation, public accommodations, services provided by state and local government, and telecommunication.

What is ADA's definition of a "person with a disability"?

A "person with a disability" is anyone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. In addition to those people who have visible disabilities - persons who are blind, deaf, or use a wheelchair - the definition includes people with a whole range of invisible disabilities. These include psychological problems, learning disabilities, or some chronic health impairment such as epilepsy, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, cardiac problems, HIV/AIDS, and more. (Documentation of the disability may be required.) A person is considered to be a person with a disability if he/she has a disability, has a record of a disability, or is regarded as having a disability.

What is the impact of the law on postsecondary education?

The ADA upholds and extends the standards for compliance set forth in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to employment practices that impact on the treatment of students with disabilities. Employment issues for all institutions are covered under Title I. For all activities, public institutions are covered under Title II; private institutions are covered under Title III. The ADA/AA of 2008 clarifies the definition of disability in keeping with the spirit of the 1990 ADA.

Regarding institutions of higher education:

  1. The ADA prohibits discrimination in the area of recruitment, admissions, or preadmission against qualified persons with disabilities.
  2. All programs, services and activities must be available to qualified students with disabilities. This includes field trips, internships, physical education, practicum, recreation, athletics, social organizations, and/or extracurricular activities.
  3. When necessary, modifications in degree or course requirements must be made for qualified students with disabilities unless the degree requirements can be demonstrated as essential to the program, or unless such modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the program. The burden of proof in determining what requirements are “essential” lies with the institution.
  4. Institutions must ensure that qualified students with disabilities have appropriate auxiliary aids when needed to fully access the programs, services, and activities of the institution. Auxiliary aids include such things as taped texts, interpreters, note takers, readers, adaptive equipment, tape recorders, etc. Public institutions of higher education are responsible for having a clearly established grievance procedure for persons with disabilities who feel their rights have been violated under the ADA and ADA/AA.


  • There may be no exclusion on the basis of disability.
  • There may be no discrimination through contract.
  • Participation should be in the most integrated setting possible.
  • There may be no discrimination through eligibility criteria.
  • Reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures must be made as necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability.
  • Modifications must be made to allow the presence/use of service animals.
  • There may be no discrimination through association with a person with a disability.
  • Surcharges to cover the costs of accommodations may not be imposed solely on persons with disabilities.
  • Examinations and courses must be accessible.
  • There may be no discrimination because of insurance constraints.
  • There may be no harassment or retaliation against individuals who are accessing their rights under the law or against those who assist people with disabilities in accessing their rights.

Of particular importance in making appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities are the mandates for making modifications as needed in policies, practices, and procedures and for ensuring accessibility of examinations and courses. As required under Section 504, this includes all aspects of academic and nonacademic activities including admissions and recruitment, admissions to specific programs, academic adjustments, housing, financial assistance, physical education and athletics, and counseling.

Additional ADA Information and Web Sites

HEATH Resource Center
The HEATH Resource Center is an online clearinghouse on postsecondary education for individuals with disabilities.
The American Council on Education (ACE)
The American Council on Education (ACE) is the country's major nongovernmental voice for postsecondary education. The Council works to provide leadership on issues of broad consequence to postsecondary education, to represent the academy's interests and purposes before Congress and throughout the nation, and to coordinate action required to meet the higher education community's objectives.
The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) is an international, multicultural organization of professionals committed to full participation in higher education for persons with disabilities. The Association is a vital resource, promoting excellence through education, communication, and training.

Portions of ADA summary contributed by Portland Community College