Scales of justice sitting on top of 2 legal books

ADA Compliance: The General Rule

Written by: Timothy Stephen Springer

This is post #5 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)


At the highest level – pretty much the top of ADA Title III – 42 U.S.C. § 12182 (a) is the General Rule. It’s pretty simple:

“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”

At the absolute simplest level: that’s it. That’s the requirement. That’s what we need to be able to show. Slightly rephrasing, it’s: You can’t prevent people with disabilities from enjoying full and equal use of the stuff that you do or provide at the place of public accommodation. It’s also worth noting that this requirement is basically passed directly through to the regulation with essentially no modification or expansion (28 CFR § 36.201 (a)).

It’s open to discussion what the heck that actually means. The Preamble to the original Title III Regulations released by the Department of Justice includes a Section-by-Section Analysis (“1991 Preamble“).  This includes this expansion of the definition which I found useful:

“Full and equal enjoyment means the right to participate and to have an equal opportunity to obtain the same results as others to the extent possible with such accommodations as may be required by the Act and these regulations. It does not mean that an individual with a disability must achieve an identical result or level of achievement as persons without a disability. For example, an exercise class cannot exclude a person who uses a wheelchair because he or she cannot do all of the exercises and derive the same result from the class as persons without a disability.”

The rest of the section – 42 U.S.C. § 12182 (b) – relates to the construction of that requirement. This is then broken down into two sub-sections (1) and (2).  Section (1) defines the “general forms of discrimination prohibited by Title III of the ADA” (1991 Preamble – Section 36.202 Activities).  These are known as the “General Prohibitions.”  (Technically it’s singular – General Prohibition – but that’s just weird to write.)  Section (2) refines and extends these general provisions and provides more depth on what constitutes discrimination under the ADA. These are known as the “Specific Prohibitions.”

The idea behind the prohibitions is that the Specific Prohibitions control when something fits that category. So when you have an issue that falls under both the General and Specific Prohibitions, the Specific Prohibitions control. So we first start with the Specific Prohibitions and then, if they don’t cover the situation, we go back to the General Prohibitions.

In the next two posts we’ll look at the general and specific prohibitions in more detail.