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ADA Compliance: Background on the ADA

Written by: Timothy Stephen Springer

This is post #3 in the ADA Compliance Series, which aims to outline a structure for validating and justifying a claim of “ADA compliance” for a website or other digital system. (a few notes and disclaimers on that)


In most situations that involve litigation, the law is “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990” commonly referred to as the “ADA”. The ADA lives in Title 42 of the United States Code (U.S.C.) which relates to “The Public Health and Welfare”. The section of Title 42 that relates to the ADA is Chapter 126 relating to “Equal Opportunity For Individuals With Disabilities”. You’ll commonly see this referred to a “42 U.S.C. § 12101”. You can read the reference of “42 U.S.C.” as “Title 42 of the United States Code.” You can read the “§ 12101” as “Section 12101.” You’ll then see all manner of subsections, letters, and the like which reference specific pieces of text in the law.

As a slight digression, for some context, the United States Code (U.S.C.) is the overall set of federal laws of the United States of America. It’s important to understand that as, often, laws will reference or amend other parts of the U.S.C. that may not be part of the legislation that the law references. Sometimes a piece of legislation just adds a chunk to the U.S.C. More often, though, it adds some new content, edits some old content, and deletes what is no longer relevant. The new “law” is then inserted into the U.S.C. in a particular context. The point here is that the new law is then interpreted in its overall context in the U.S.C. and that can lead to different implications than interpreting the law as drafted in a standalone bill. So: know your U.S.C.

Generally speaking, what does the ADA do? 

“The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”  – ADA National Network, What is the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The ADA is divided into five Titles, or sections, that cover areas of public life. Four of those Titles warrant attention for digital accessibility:

  • Title I –  Relates to employment and ensures that people with disabilities have access to employment and benefits as other individuals.   We’re not going to focus on this as part of this post series but, it’s worth noting, there are some real digital accessibility requirements related to the employment process to be considered.
  • Title II – Relates to facilities and services provided by state and local governments. There are a variety of digital accessibility requirements that arise here but we won’t focus on those as part of this analysis.
  • Title III – Relates to public accommodations operated by private organizations. Public accommodations were often originally thought of solely as relating to physical places with a list of them in the ADA. In recent years a variety of rulings have extended this to include virtual places like websites and applications. This is where we’ll focus.
  • Title IV covers telecommunications providers and their equipment and services. It overlaps other telecommunication laws such as the CVAA, or 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. We won’t focus on this one as we’ve written extensively on the CVAA which, largely, has superseded the ADA requirements.
  • Title V is miscellaneous and includes a variety of items. The one that’s likely most interesting for our purposes is that it allows the recovery of attorneys’ fees by prevailing parties. There are some aspects of this that potentially relate to digital accessibility by they largely relate to legal mechanics and strategy points so we’ll broadly ignore them here with a few exceptions.

When it comes to technology, we’re typically talking about ADA Title III. If you have a physical location, Title III is what requires you to have accessible parking spaces or a wheelchair ramp. In the technology space, ADA compliance means your website, mobile app, software, or other digital content is accessible to individuals with disabilities. We’ll cover how that application is claimed in lawsuits a little later in the series as it’s critical to understanding the scope of the claims.