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Disability Law in the United States: A Beginner's Guide

Federal Laws


While many federal statutes and regulations touch on the rights of individuals, the following statutes are among the most prominent laws covering disability rights. The statutes listed here are not an exclusive listing of all relevant legislation. For more information regarding laws not mentioned below, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains a guide to federal laws pertaining to disability rights.


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

As expressed in its "Findings and Purpose" section, the ADA is meant to "provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities." This statute prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, transportation, and public and private places that are open to the general public. Some of its specific titles cover topics such as jobs, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The "Declaration of Policy" section of the FHA states "it is the policy of the United States to provide, within constitutional limitations, for fair housing throughout the United States." This policy extends to those with a handicap, defined as "a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities." The FHA covers specific categories of housing units with limited exemptions for landlord occupied housing and for housing rented by a landlord who owns three or fewer properties.

Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA)

CRIPA's protections affect persons with disabilities who are confined in jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and other institutions for those who are mentally ill or have a developmental disability. CRIPA provides the Attorney General and the Department of Justice discretionary authority to bring a lawsuit against an institution when it is believed that a government agency or employee "is subjecting persons residing in or confined to an egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive such person of any rights privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States..."

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The "Purposes" section of IDEA explains that this chapter is intended "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living..." IDEA also offers government support to states, school districts, educators, and families to to support special educational initiatives.

Rehabilitation Act (RHA)

The "Findings; purpose; policy" section of the RHA explains that the act is intended to "empower individuals with disabilities to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society" through several distinct initiatives. The statute covers a broad category of programs by extending these protections to any place of employment that receives any type of federal funding or assistance, and to private entities involved in education, health care, housing, social services, or parks and recreation.