Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act

By: Verbit Editorial
the Capital Building

There are over 42 million people with disabilities in the United States. The experience of having a disability is diverse, and it’s important that accommodations offer individualized support. The right tools should provide equitable experiences for everyone. The Americans with Disabilities Act aims to provide equity while prohibiting disability discrimination.  

Today, the ADA applies to many physical and virtual spaces. Let’s take a closer look at the concept of equity, the standards set forth in the ADA and the ways that this legislation promotes diversity, equity and inclusion in all industries.  

Understanding equity 

People often confuse the concept of equity with that of equality. There is a helpful and now well-known graphic that explains this concept well. The image shows three people of different heights trying to see over a fence. The tallest person can comfortably see over the fence with no difficulty, while the two shorter people need some type of assistance to see. Equality would mean that each of the individuals receives the same support- as in one crate each of the same size. This solution may result in the tallest person standing even taller, while the single crate may not be high enough to help the shortest person see over the fence.

An equitable approach, however, would consider each person’s height and offer them the specific number of crates they need to see over the fence. In the image, it’s clear that the tallest person doesn’t need a crate, while the middle person needs one and the shortest person needs two.  

The ADA aims to help achieve this type equity in schools, workplaces, businesses and more. 

the "equality vs. equity" graphic, which says "equality" on the left and "equity" on the right. On the left, three people are trying to look over a fence, each standing on a crate. The person on the left and the one in the middle can see over the fence, while the other cannot. On the right, the tallest person has no crate and can see over the fence. The person in the middle has one and can see. The shortest has two and can now also see over the fence.

Image from the Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

What is the ADA? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 with the intention of prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA contains requirements pertaining to the accessibility of physical and virtual spaces, as well as work environments and communications. The ADA has been amended and updated throughout the years as our understanding of disabilities evolves. Recent court decisions indicate that compliance pertains to physical spaces as well as websites and other online platforms.  

Since the passage of the ADA, accessibility in the United States has steadily improved. Along with that progress, the public is becoming more understanding of disabilities and accommodations. Business leaders, content creators and structural designers must all prioritize ADA compliance not just to satisfy legal requirements, but to meaningfully support the members of their communities. Keeping accessibility top of mind in all things helps to level the playing field and demonstrate a brand’s dedication to putting people first.  

a person writing on papers

Understanding ADA Requirements 

The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities and “…guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs.”  

The ADA defines a person with a disability as one who:  

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, 
  • has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or 
  • is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn). 

ADA requirements dictate the need for compliance on a number of different fronts. Specifically, ADA coverage  aims to prevent discrimination against those with disabilities by employers, public entities, commercial facilities and telecommunication providers. Based on the principles of the ADA, organizations must promote accessibility of physical and virtual spaces through reasonable accommodations. 

Physical Accessibility Requirements 

The ADA outlines a variety of requirements that pertain specifically to the physical design and construction of brick-and-mortar facilities. For example, construction of public buildings must include entrances, exits, doorways, restrooms and elevators  that are spacious enough to accommodate wheelchair-users. Similarly, businesses must offer accessible parking spaces with clear signage for those with mobility-related disabilities, and ramps with handrails. These physical accessibility requirements exist to ensure all community members have equitable access to public spaces like schools, government facilities, retail centers and more.  

four people in a conference room speaking to another woman on a screen

Communication Accessibility Requirements  

From its inception, the ADA made clear that telecommunication companies must provide accommodations that allow customers with hearing and speech disabilities to take advantage of their services. As methods of communication evolve, however, additional accommodations become necessary and available to support individuals with disabilities. ASL interpreters, for example, play an integral role in ensuring the accessibility of certain communications like press conferences, news briefings and public performances that may otherwise be inaccessible to members of the Deaf community.  

Similarly, assistive technologies like captioning, transcription and audio description improve communication accessibility for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, as well as those who are blind or have low vision. These tools make it possible for people to exchange information in more widely accessible formats. The result is that all parties can engage equitably with phone calls, audio messages, video chats and more.  

Website and Digital Accessibility Requirements 

Since 1990, the public’s dependence upon virtual spaces like websites and apps has expanded exponentially. Now, additional requirements are necessary, but they aren’t in the actual law. Courts and the Department of Justice indicate that websites must adhere to the ADA, but unless and until a proposed law passes, the ADA is still lacking specifics.  

In the meantime, those in search of digital accessibility guidance can turn to the WCAG. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines state that digital information should be:  





In order to achieve the enhanced website accessibility, developers and designers must make their digital content and platforms easy for all users to navigate. Making content compatible with assistive technologies and devices like screen readers, is one way to boost access. Only sharing accurate and easy-to-interpret information is another requirement which supports individuals with intellectual disabilities and specific learning needs. Following WCAG guidelines and investing in accessibility testing can help web creators support critical legal standards and provide better online experiences for everyone.  

three men in an office working on a computer

Employment and Workplace Accessibility Requirements 

One of the most critical stipulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act is in Title 1’s requirements for employment accessibility. This part of the law states that no “covered entity” shall discriminate against “a qualified individual with a disability” in an employment setting. Discrimination in the context can look like an employer refusing to hire someone because of their disability. It may also include an employer requiring employees to undergo medical evaluations or disclose medical information as a condition of their employment.  

Additionally, employment discrimination may involve an employer refusing to provide reasonable accommodations for a team member with a disability. For example, failing to offer closed captioning or transcription of video meetings may prevent an employee who is Deaf or hard of hearing from engaging equitably with information. Similarly, failing to maintain accessibility facilities for employees with mobility-related disabilities can constitute a major hazard and put certain employees in harm’s way.  

Proactively offering workplace accommodations not only protects an employer from ADA enforcement action but also fosters a more inclusive work environment overall. Additionally, employers should undergo and offer training sessions to increase disability awareness and make accommodations and resources readily available to everyone.  

Compliance and Enforcement of ADA Requirements 

The Federal Government enforces ADA requirements through lawsuits and settlement agreements. A number of different government agencies can bring such challenges, which may be broad or narrow in scope. For example, the Department of Justice typically enforces ADA requirements pertaining to state and local government services, while the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the employment accessibility requirements of Title I of the ADA.  

In addition to the aforementioned lawsuits and settlement agreements, there are a number of penalties and enforcement actions for ADA violations that various state and federal agencies can bring. Members of the public can easily file a complaint of ADA non-compliance at ADA.gov at any time, so business owners must learn how the ADA applies to them.  

Organizations and businesses can face fines of up to $75,000 for a single ADA violation. That amount only increases with additional infractions. For this reason, it’s important for business owners and digital creators to understand the cost associated with falling short of ADA compliance as it compares the cost of implementing assistive technologies and accommodations that support ADA guidelines.  

a woman with a phone

Embracing the ADA and Accessibility 

ADA requirements exist to provide more equitable experiences and opportunities to all members of the public. From schools to churches to offices and everywhere in between, the goal is to create spaces that are accessible and inclusive for all. Failing to adhere to accessibility guidelines not only opens up a business or organization to potential legal challenges and penalties but can negatively impact valuable members of a community. 

The expectation of ADA compliance is a call to action for businesses and organizations of all shapes and sizes. Verbit recognizes the importance of accessibility in the workplace, classroom and beyond. Reach out today to learn more about how Verbit’s innovative accessibility solutions can support your organization.