National U.S. Disability Laws

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The laws included on the RightsNow! website are primarily rights-oriented laws that prohibit many different kinds of entities, such as individuals, state and municipal governments, private employers and businesses, and service organizations, from discriminating on the basis of disability. However, we include some explanation and links related to the ongoing federal benefits and support laws that pertain to people with disabilities.

A Brief History

Historically, some individual American states passed laws that required at least some degree of physical accessibility under building regulations and construction codes that predate federal efforts on the same subject. Some of the oldest federal laws related to disability tended to address specific needs or particular subgroups of people with disability, such as vocational rehabilitation for veterans with disabilities or old-age benefits for blind persons. The rise of disability civil rights as a national movement in the 1960s and 70s was the impetus for a new kind of “disability law.” These new laws had a broader cross-disability application because people with all kinds of disabilities faced common barriers of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotype which manifested themselves not only in physical inaccessibility, but in rigid social and cultural ways of doing things that prevented equal participation from people with disabilities. The ground-breaking concepts of “reasonable accommodations” and “reasonable modifications of policies and procedures” that were developed in these laws provided a way to address non-physical barriers. The national laws themselves also provided a consistent floor of protection for people with disabilities regardless of where they lived in the U.S. and whether or not their own state had disability discrimination laws.

U.S. Laws and Subject Areas Covered on the RightsNow! Website

Below are the main subject areas into which we have organized national U.S. disability laws. Each link below leads to an array of resources. These are ordered from the primary source (the major law or laws on the given subject area), to regulations enacted by federal agencies that supply key implementing details to the basic law, and finally to secondary resources about the law that are generally written in common terms. These secondary sources usually include a general overview of the law and may also include specific topics that are addressed within the law. We include primary or secondary lay resources in another language where available. Over time, we intend to incorporate other links to more secondary materials on the following subject areas as we identify and review additional materials. We may also potentially expand the list of subjects to additional important areas of coverage, such as voting and political participation.

  1. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

  2. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

  3. Individuals with Education Act (IDEA)

  4. Air Carrier Access Act

  5. Housing (Fair Housing Act and others)

  6. Economic Support (Social Security Act, Medicaid Act, and other laws)


The ADA National Network was created in 1991 and consists of ten Regional ADA Centers located throughout the US as well as a single ADA Knowledge Translation Center. The Network is federally funded to support implementation of the ADA’s mission to “assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” The Network fulfills its mission by providing information, guidance, and training on how to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to individual entities that hold responsibilities under the ADA, including businesses, employers, state and local governments, architects, disability organizations, and individuals with disabilities whose rights are protected under the ADA. 

The ADA Network’s Disability Law Handbook provides useful lay information on many aspects of federal disability rights law.

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal agency given primary responsibility for enforcing many aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability rights laws, also has A Guide to Disability Rights Laws from July 2009. The guide gives succinct summaries of ten different laws, provides contact information for the main federal agency responsible for enforcing the law (or part of the law), and the proper citations for each law.