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Legislation and the Law

Legislation and Rights

Past Legislation

This section is intended to give an overview of legislation aimed at aiding the disabled. The primary purpose of all the legislation listed here is to provide individuals with disabilities the opportunity to become fully integrated into society. For example, passing legislation outlawing discrimination based on disability status allows more individuals with disabilities to enter the work force and become self sufficient. Legislation has helped to expand the rights of the disabled and give them a greater role in society, but more action is needed. There are still access and discrimination questions that, until resolved, continue the exclusion of millions of individuals with disabilities.

These are the major pieces of legislation impacting the disabled enacted by the federal government. They cover a wide range, from equal access in public buildings to free educational opportunities. Each piece of legislation addresses a separate area where the disabled have long been neglected. When viewed as a whole, all these laws are meant to create a level playing field for individuals with disabilities. The government has tried to integrate the disabled fully into society, and their efforts are admirable. However, there are still many areas where the laws do not go far enough. Other more visible and active groups receive much more government assistance. There are still many areas that need to be addressed including health care, the availability of adaptive technology, stronger enforcement of voting rights, and greater educational opportunities. We call on our legislators to continue to pass substantial legislation providing individuals with disabilities with the same opportunities the rest of society enjoys.

(All information contained within these pages is taken directly from the legislation referenced. If you want more information, please refer to the individual bills)

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary piece of legislation that is mentioned when discussing disabled issues. The act addresses wide ranging issues intended to alter American society and make it accessible for individuals with disabilities. The legislation contains five titles, each addressing a different section of society, employment, public services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and miscellaneous, and how they should be altered to allow access for the disabled.

Title I (Employment) states that businesses need to provide reasonable accommodations to allow individuals with disabilities protection in all aspects of employment. This means altering facilities, certain job functions, and equipment to make them accessible for any possible disabled employee. Also affected is the employment process itself, the application process, hiring, wages, and benefits. Medical examinations for employment are highly regulated, so not to allow disabled individuals from unnecessarily being denied employment.

Title II (Public Services) states that state and local governments, including all agencies and services provided by those agencies cannot be denied to individuals with disabilities. These programs and services include public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, court access, voting, and more. Any program that a non-disabled person can participate in also must be accessible to a disabled person. A major component of this section is the requirement that public transportation must be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Title III (Public Accommodations) states that all new construction and modification of existing public accommodations must be accessible to the disabled. For existing facilities, barriers to services must be removed. Public accommodations included in this title include restaurants, hotels, retail stores, and general use facilities. Basically, all facilities utilized by the general public must be accessible by the disabled as well.

Title IV (Telecommunications) states that telecommunications companies must accommodate telecommunication devices for the deaf or other similar devices. It ensures access by the disabled to telecommunications equipment.

Title V (Miscellaneous) is a provision prohibiting coercion or retaliation against individuals with disabilities or their advocates for asserting their rights under the ADA.

The employment provision only applies to employers of fifteen or more people, if the company is smaller than that, they are not subject to the ADA's requirements. The public accommodations provisions, however, applies to businesses of all sizes. Also, regardless of size, state and local governments must fully comply with the ADA.

The ADA was ground breaking legislation that gave the disabled not only the access within society that the general public already enjoys, but it also established legal rights and a course of action to redress discrimination. If a qualified disabled individual were to apply for a job and is rejected solely because of that disability, that individual finally had grounds for a lawsuit. The ADA created a level playing field for the disabled, it allows them to participate and be productive members of society. Like the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the ADA removed the stigma surrounding disability and began to remove the disabled from the status of second class citizenry.

The Social Security Act

Originally passed during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Social Security Act has been amended over time to include more provisions for the disabled. Meant to be a retirement program for older Americans, the Social Security Act's scope has been increased as time has passed to include many other functions. The two most important functions the Act are the income and the health insurance benefits it provided to the disabled. When a person becomes disabled, often times they lose the ability to work and support themselves. They have no real income and cannot provide for their own basic needs. The Social Security Act provides this needed income through its Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, in Title XVI of the legislation. Through SSI, an individual receives $530 a month in benefits and an individual with a spouse receives $796 (Values for 2001). Because of this aid, many of the disabled are able to support themselves when they have no other source of income.

Additionally, health costs for the disabled are much higher than for the average consumer. Purchasing private insurance is often very expensive, or altogether unavailable, and the disabled lack the resources to acquire it. Also, because many individuals with disabilities cannot work, they are not able to receive heath insurance from an employer. The Social Security Act also provides health coverage for the disabled through Title XVII and Title XIX, the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Because of these provisions, the disabled receive health care that would not be available in the private sector. Recent legislation has also been created that alters how the disabled receive benefits.

The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Acts of 1999 allows individuals with disabilities to re-enter the work force without losing their benefits and health coverage provided by Social Security. These acts allow members of the disabled community to slowly reintegrate into the work force, and not have to risk their benefits to do so. Without the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Acts of 1999, individuals with disabilities had to risk falling into poverty to re-enter the work force, but now that transition is much more feasible.

The importance of the Social Security Act to the disabled community cannot be overstated. This legislation provides a sizable portion of the community the only income and health coverage available. Many times an individual with disabilities simply cannot work and have no means of income. They either must rely on their family for support or the generosity of private groups and strangers to survive. By creating legislation like the Social Security Act, the government has provided the disabled community a safety net that provides for a portion of the population that cannot provide for themselves. Without this legislation, many members of the disabled community would be forced into a very low standard of living that borders on inhumane. New legislation has improved the way the act operates. By allowing individuals with disabilities to re-enter the work force without jeopardizing their benefits, society can benefit from the skills of these individuals.

The Rehabilitation Act (29 United States Code, Section 791)

The Rehabilitation Act is a far reaching piece of legislation with many different sections dealing with disabled issues. The act prohibits discrimination based on disability for programs receiving Federal funding, in employment, and by Federal contractors. The same standard set forth in the ADA is used to define discrimination by the Rehabilitation Act. There are several sections that explicitly address disabled issues.

Section 501 requires non-discrimination in hiring and employment practices by Federal agencies. There is also a requirement of affirmative action, which means taking disability status into account as a determining factor for hiring.

Section 503 of the act prohibits discrimination in hiring and employment practices by government contractors.

Section 504 provides guarantees for qualified disabled individuals in hiring practices. The section states no qualified disabled individual can be excluded from or denied benefits from any Federal agency or program. To meet this requirement, each agency has its own requirements to comply with Section 504. These requirements include accommodations for disabled employees, construction accessible to the disabled, and communication standards for disabled workers.

Section 508, addresses federal procurement policy. The section sets requirements for electronic technology created, maintained, procured, or utilized by the federal government. Any technology used must also be accessible to people with disabilities, employees or the public.

The purpose of the Rehabilitation Act is to prevent discrimination towards disabled individuals by the Federal government. The act covers all actions by the federal government, from their hiring and employment practices, the delivery of services, and the technology they employ. Preventing discrimination by the Federal government is very important because it is the major service provider for individuals with disabilities. If individuals with disabilities cannot receive services from the Federal government, they are unlikely to receive services anywhere else. In many cases, Federal aid is crucial to the well being of many individuals with disabilities. Discrimination must be eliminated to ensure everyone receives their benefits.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly know as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, requires public schools make available to all eligible children with disabilities, a free appropriate public education. When first enacted, the Federal government was to provide 40 percent of the funding associated with the requirement of a free public education. The IDEA also required public school systems to develop individualized education programs for each disabled child. These plans would reflect the needs of the individual students. Unfortunately, the Federal government has not met the 40 percent funding level provided for in the original law, so states and local school districts have been forced to meet the requirement of a free education with their own source of funding.

IDEA was ground breaking legislation because it guaranteed education to children with disabilities, regardless of cost. Without a proper education, individuals are not able to become functional members of society. If one does not receive an education, he/she may become dependent on others and lack many skills to live independently. The creation of the IDEA ensures that regardless of a disability, each child has the same opportunity to receive an education. Millions of people have benefited directly from this legislation, but there are countless others who benefit indirectly because of the contribution made to society by these individuals who, without this act, would not receive an education.

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act, as it now exists after being amended in 1988, makes housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin illegal. The law extends this to private housing, housing receiving federal assistance, and any form of state and local housing. Discrimination based on a disability in any aspect of housing, from renting, buying, or facilities is a violation of law. The law also requires owners of housing facilities to make exceptions to their policies to allow individuals with disabilities the same opportunities to occupy housing that is enjoyed by the general population. This includes access to the facility and making common use spaces accessible to disabled tenants. New housing with four or more units must be constructed to allow for access by the disabled.

This is very important because it gives the disabled an equal opportunity to acquire housing. Before the protections given by this law existed, the disabled could be denied housing simply because of their disability. Suitable housing is a necessary component to life. Without a place to live it is very difficult to find employment and lead a normal life. The Fair Housing Act gives individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to secure accessible housing and become independent.

Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

Passed in 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act generally requires polling places across the country to be physically accessible for individuals with disabilities for Federal elections. If there is no suitable location, an alternative means for voting on the day of the election must be provided. Additionally, the act requires states make registration and voting aids available for the disabled, including making this information available for individuals with hearing impairments via telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs). The act ensures basic access to voting locations for the elderly and the disabled.

Another recently passed law has tried to increase voter registration among the disabled. The National Voter Registration Act (also known as the Motor Voter Law), passed in 1993, requires all state offices, agencies, and service providers that provide services for the disabled to offer voter registration services to their disabled clients as well. This act, combined with the Voting Accessibility Act, aims to involve as many members of the disabled community in the democratic process.

These acts are important because they provide equal access for voting to all citizens, regardless of disability status. If individuals with disabilities are denied access to polling locations or are not able to register, they are in effect being denied their right to vote. Once people are not allowed to vote, their status falls below everyone else within society who can vote. Being denied access creates a second class of citizenry, individuals who have no input over how they are governed. The Voting Accessibility Act seeks to remedy this situation for federal elections. By mandating that polling places be accessible, the government is removing the notion that it favors able-bodied individuals over individuals with disabilities. The Constitution provides equal protection for all citizens under the law, and this act is a necessary action maintaining the equal right of all people to vote.

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[Updated March 31, 2014]
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