ADA: Protecting Your Child’s Civil Rights

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a glance

  • ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  • ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities.

  • It applies almost everywhere, from schools to workplaces to public places like restaurants and businesses.

Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can make it easier for you to get your child the help she needs. ADA is a federal civil rights law. It makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities at work, in school and in public spaces.

Here’s what you need to know about ADA.

If your child has any learning or thinking differences, she’s probably covered.

ADA protects anyone with “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more life activities.” Life activities include things like eating, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking and communicating.

ADA Fact SheetPDF

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Children with , , , as well as other challenges, are protected by this law. This is true even if they’re on medication or getting some other kind of help. They’re protected even if they’re doing fine in school or at work.

The law is meant to be very broad. For instance, ADA covers people who use wheelchairs and people with food allergies, anxiety, depression, HIV and diabetes. ADA also protects anyone who’s discriminated against because of a previous disability or condition (called “a record of impairment”).

It even protects a person others regard as having a disability. So if teachers think of your child as having learning differences, your child could be covered.

ADA prohibits discrimination almost everywhere and overlaps with other laws.

The ADA is far-reaching. It bans discrimination nearly everywhere, not just in schools. It applies to workplaces and in public places such as restaurants, parks and businesses. It generally does not apply in private settings, such as someone’s home.

ADA works in tandem with other education laws affecting children with learning and thinking differences, such as and the (IDEA).

ADA sometimes provides the same protections as, say, Section 504. But generally Section 504 and IDEA offer more protections to children in school. Your child will always be covered by whatever law offers the greatest protection.

For instance, ADA doesn’t make schools responsible for (FAPE) of all children. Section 504 and the IDEA do that. Your child is entitled to FAPE if she’s covered by either of those laws.

ADA protects children participating in activities outside of school, such as camps.

If your child attends a camp or takes part in a sports league or other activity that gets federal funds, she’s covered by Section 504. But many activities and clubs that children participate in are privately run or nonprofits not receiving government money.

ADA says those organizations—camps, Little League, private trade schools, even ETS (the SAT testing service)—can’t discriminate. They must give “reasonable ” to kids with “impairments.”

The key word here is “reasonable.” Each situation is different. Giving a child with ADHD more breaks might be reasonable. But changing the grading or rules for that child might not be.

When your child gets a job, ADA will protect her rights.

ADA is clear: Employers can’t discriminate against workers because of their so-called physical or mental “impairment.” This means that your child can’t be fired or turned down for a job, promotion, raise or training solely because she has, for example, a condition like .

ADA also says employers can’t ask workers about their condition (unless the person is applying for a federal contract under affirmative action rules).

There are some caveats, though:

  1. Your child still must prove she’s qualified for the job. She has to have the right skills, experience and education.
  2. If your child wants a “reasonable accommodation,” such as the ability to take more frequent breaks at work because of her ADHD, she has to tell her employer about her condition and make the request. She can’t just assume she’ll get the request granted, though.
  3. The employer can say “no” to the request if it would be an “undue hardship.” Examples of undue hardships include if it’s too expensive (depending on the company’s resources) or has a significant impact on work operations.

Find out more about your child’s legal rights in the workplace.

If you think a school, employer or business isn’t following ADA, you can file a complaint.

To file a complaint, you have to write to the federal agency that oversees the organization. The U.S. Department of Education oversees public schools. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for employers.

In other situations, such as camps, sport clubs or taking the SAT, you can complain to the U.S. Department of Justice. If you aren’t satisfied with those results, you can also file a civil lawsuit.

You may find that other laws protect your child’s rights more than ADA. But there may be times when ADA comes into play. Understanding this federal law will make it easier for your child to live a full and productive life outside of school.

Key takeaways

  • Just because a child is covered by ADA doesn’t mean she’ll be eligible for special education services under IDEA.

  • ADA says people don’t have to disclose their learning differences to employers, as long as they don’t expect any extra help or assistance.

  • ADA covers educational activities run by private groups, such as trade schools and SAT testing centers.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Myrna Mandlawitz, MEd, JD has worked for over 20 years as a consultant/lobbyist on special and general education.