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President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) on July 26, 1990. Effective July 29, 1992, the ADA prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications. The ADA was enacted to address the “pervasive social problem” of the disabled being excluded from full participation in society. It was the world’s first civil rights law protecting the disabled. The ADA was amended in 2008 to broaden the definition of those covered by the Act and their protections.

Congress set forth the multiple purposes of the ADA as follows:

  1. To provide a clear and comprehensive mandate for elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities;
  2. To provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination;
  3. To ensure that the federal government enforces standards on behalf of individuals with disabilities; and
  4. To invoke congressional authority to address discrimination.

The ADA is divided into five sections, or “titles.” Title I governs discrimination against disabled individuals in employment. Title II prohibits disability discrimination by public entities at the state and local (i.e., county, city, municipal, school district) level, and applies to public transportation. Title III is the section of the ADA which most impacts architects, as it governs places of public accommodations. Title IV addresses telecommunications, and Title V includes a number of miscellaneous provisions, including an anti-retaliation or coercion provision to protect those who exercise their rights under the Act.

The ADA applies to both public and private places of public accommodation. A place of public accommodation is defined as essentially any place (public or private) which is open to members of the public and relates to “commerce,” but is not “residential”. There are, however, exemptions for private clubs and religious organizations, and special rules for historic properties.

Under the ADA an individual is defined as having a “disability” if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities” of such individual. A “major life activity” consists of caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, communicating and working.

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