The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Civil Rights Law

After speaking with a mother of a child with a disability, it became apparent to me that more people should understand that the ADA is a civil rights law. I expand on this subject from that conversation in today's post.

The other day I was talking to a woman whose daughter has the same disability as I have, Erb’s Palsy. She was explaining some of the difficulties of raising a child with a disability as she is entering middle school. Her daughter wants to try out for the cheer team, but the tryout heavily emphasizes the skill of tumbling. This is much more difficult for this young girl due to her disability. The mother explained the child's disability was accounted for in her Individual Education Plan (IEP).  She was frustrated that updating the IEP is a cumbersome process that may not address the issue in time for the tryout. This is when I pointed out that her daughter has civil rights to access programs of Title II entities under the ADA. Specifically, they may request a reasonable modification of policy, practice, and procedure. There could be a reasonable way to evaluate the girl's participation without overemphasizing her physical limitations. There are a number of ways the daughter can participate in cheerleading that do not involve tumbling. This process doesn’t require a meeting between all the stakeholders of the program. It’s simply a request that should be reasonably considered by the faculty of the cheer team. The mom was instantly relieved to know there was a process for this type of thing that wasn’t overly complicated. She had never considered the ADA as a civil rights law.

That’s a common theme that I hear from people I talk to through my job. It should be universally understood that the ADA is a civil rights law. It was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A big misconception that I see every day is that the ADA is a building code. It’s not. Building code is its own law, which is locally adopted and enforced. The International Code Council, who develops building code, has worked extensively with the US Access Board. These organizations worked to harmonize the two sets of standards to make it easier for both laws to coexist. Building code has accessibility requirements but is mostly concerned with general safety. The ADA Standards have some requirements concerned with safety, but the intent is equitable access.

Being compliant with building code does not guarantee compliance with the ADA. Even though building code and the ADA Standards are harmonized, that does not mean they are identical. There are differences. Building code will not address the height of a mirror provided in a public restroom, but the ADA will. If it’s something a business or municipality provides at all, it should be provided in a way where everyone can use it. Some mirrors only serve average height standing people and that’s not a problem building code is concerned with. The ADA does have specific stipulations for this, and a number of businesses have run afoul of the ADA for this reason.

While talking to this same mother, I mentioned another area the ADA will apply are child daycare centers. Many daycare providers have a practice of not accepting children with disabilities. Because so many people view the ADA as a building code, they fail to recognize that they may have policies that discriminate on the basis of disability. The ADA requires reasonable modifications of policies, practices, and procedures in order to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability. A child with a disability should have just as much right to attend a daycare center as any other child without disabilities.

The limitations of the ADA extend to unreasonable requests. I’ve heard lots of reasons why children were turned away. “Insurance won’t cover them.” “It’s not safe for the child.” “We don’t have staff trained for this.” To that, I can cite the ADA regulations directly: “A public accommodation shall not refuse to serve an individual with a disability because its insurance company conditions coverage or rates on the absence of individuals with disabilities. A public accommodation may impose legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation, however safety requirements must be based on actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities. A public accommodation shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when the modifications are necessary to afford goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations.” If a non-medically trained family member can be reasonably trained to attend to the medical needs of a child with a disability, it should generally be reasonable for staff of a childcare center to perform the same actions if and when needed. As long as a reasonable approach can be developed to have a child with a disability attend a daycare, the child should have a right to participate in any other program that any other child can attend.

There will be circumstances where it may be unreasonable to accommodate to the needs of a person with a disability in participation of public life, but these conditions should be the exceptions, not the rule. More people with disabilities should be aware of their civil rights. More businesses and government entities should be aware of their civic responsibilities. Education about the ADA would benefit more people, people with rights and people with responsibilities, alike. That’s part of why the ADA Center exists. But just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it should really be common sense. We are all people of this Earth and deserve the same basic opportunities as one another.