What is the ADA and what might schools look like without it?

The ADA Turns 30

This year the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA, celebrated its 30th anniversary. This legislation is often thought to be the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for individuals with disabilities, written “to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”[1]

Before the ADA, it was commonly believed that people living with disabilities needed protection from the hardships of society, even if they were willing and able to participate. With modern developments in medical technology, those who have survived illness and injury have achieved greater independence and are able to live high quality, fulfilling lives. Unfortunately, even with these advancements, there is still a charity approach to their integration into the workplace, public spaces, and other institutions.

The ADA advocates for people living with disabilities, maintaining that they are competent and have the right to govern their lives and furthermore, the public policy is responsible for creating meaningful equal opportunity.

The ADA Goes to School

In addition to preventing and prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities, the ADA requires educational institutions to make facilities, extracurricular activities, and opportunities accessible to all students. This act, in conjunction the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), which provides students with disabilities the right to receive appropriate educational and assistive services, helps ensure all students are treated equally, have equal opportunity, and receive the same quality of services and benefits. Within the educational system, the ADA protects both children with disabilities, children who have parents with disabilities, and staff members with disabilities. Protection in this sector spans across transportation, accessibility, resources, and extracurricular activities, with the goal of making educational institutions accessible to all families.[2] Integration of the ADA into the school system is seen in many forms, including activities and programs that ensure students with disabilities can participate freely, conducting learning in standard classes with available services, and individualized special education when necessary. Examples include allowing students to modify class schedules and tape-record classes, or making physical changes such as installing accessible doorknobs, creating handicapped parking spaces, or widening door openings in schools. It also requires that both public and private schools have accessible websites for students with visual, motor, and cognitive disabilities.[3]

No two students are the same, and many come from diverse backgrounds and upbringings. The ADA ensures that students of all disabilities, whether it’s physical, sensory, cognitive, or emotional, are given the same opportunities as their peers.  It’s crucial for all students to have access to the same education, and to provide accommodations for those who need it. In order to support every child, both faculty and parents need to have an understanding of what the ADA is, how it supports individuals with disabilities, and how this relates to their students and their corresponding education.

Parenting Resources

There are a multitude of resources available for parents who are navigating the ADA for their child. This search can begin with the ADA National Network,[4] which can direct you to an ADA Center closest to you. These centers have ADA Specialists, who offer consultations to educate parents about the ADA, and guidebooks on how to navigate state-specific laws and regulations.

For general information on the ADA, the ADA Web Search Portal[5] allows you to search keywords relating to the ADA and directs you to relevant websites. It provides links and documents to different disabilities, accommodation information, communication techniques, and more.

For Spanish speaking families, the Department of Justice[6] provides information and hotlines that are available in both English and Spanish. Specific information regarding ADA regulation, history, and standards can be found here.

If you’re looking for resources about a specific disability, national organizations offer detailed information about the disability in question. Examples include the National Association of the Deaf (NAD),[7] American Association on Intellectual Development Disabilities (AAIDD),[8] and the American Council of the Blind (ACB).[9]

The ADA also assists with child care. Related information can be found through the PACER Center,[10] which provides information for families with children with disabilities, as well as the Department of Justice. For information about laws pertaining to child care, visit Wrightslaw,[11] which is a resource where advocates, parents, and law officials compile information relating to Special Education Law.

Imagining a World Without the ADA

Health equity is mandatory for individuals living with disabilities. This involves removing obstacles so every person has the ability to achieve the same opportunities, regardless of their impairments. A world without the ADA would be a world where people with disabilities would be expected to perform to the same standards as everybody else while facing additional barriers.

In this world, we would have school systems with classrooms full of diverse students expected to function without reasonable accommodation. There would be no ramps, no school counseling, no auxiliary aids, and no special education.,[12] Students in wheelchairs wouldn’t be able to access parts of school that have stairs or curbs, students with visual and auditory impairments wouldn’t have access to assistive technology, and students with disabilities might not be able to receive the benefits such as socialization that comes from participating in extracurricular activities. And that would just be the beginning.

The ADA gives children with disabilities the access and ability to learn in the same way as all of their peers. It provides them the opportunity to gain an education and the possibility of furthering their education, should they decide to. Without reasonable accommodation from the ADA, children would be unable to progress in the way they deserve.

For more information about protection and support for students with disabilities, stay tuned for our next piece which will discuss how the ADA works in conjunction with the IDEA to accommodate the needs of all children.


[1] “About the ADA National Network,” ADA National Network, August 2020, https://www.www.adata.org/about-ada-national-network.

[2] http://www.ldonline.org/article/6108

[3] “Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Educational Accommodation,” Stimmel Law, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.stimmel-law.com/en/articles/americans-disabilities-act-ada-and-educational-accomodation.

[4] “ADA National Network, Information, Guidance, and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act,” ADA National Network, last modified August 2020, https://www.adata.org.

[5] “ADA Web Search Portal,” ADA National Network, last modified August 2020, https://www.adata.org.

[6] “Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act,” United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.ada.gov.

[7] “National Association of the Deaf,” National Association of the Deaf, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.nad.org.

[8] “AAIDD,” American Association on Intellectual Disabilities, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.aaidd.org.

[9] “American Council of the Blind, Together for a Bright Future,” American Council of the Blind, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.acb.org.

[10] “PACER Center, Champions for Children with Disabilities,” PACER Center, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.pacer.org.

[11] “Wrightslaw,” Wrightslaw, August 17, 2020, https://www.wrightslaw.com.

[12]Deborah Leuchovius, “ADA Q&A: Back to School,” accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.pacer.org/parent/php/PHP-c51c.pdf.