Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), no state or local government entity may discriminate on the basis of disability in its programs, services or activities. In addition to that general prohibition, state and local government entities must assure that all of their programs and services, when viewed in their entirety, are accessible. Put another way, every program must be accessible, although not every facility must be accessible.
A state or local government must provide a disabled individual with an equal opportunity to participate in programs, services and activities provided. This means, for example, that court proceedings and public meetings must be held in places that are accessible to people with mobility impairments. Auxiliary aids and services — such as sign language interpreters and TTY machines — must be provided to ensure effective communication. People with visual impairments must be provided materials and information in a format useable to them. Examples of facilities covered by these requirements include: courts, police departments, schools, universities, state parks, public housing authorities and social services agencies.
The ADA applies accessibility requirements to any programs, service or activity conducted by the city, county or state government agencies, regardless of how many employees they have. Also, if the government contracts with a private business, then that business must also comply with Title II of the ADA (and will also have Title II obligations). Title II applies to local governments whether they receive federal funds or not; however, it does not apply to directly to the federal government, which is covered instead by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
If public transportation is provided by a city, county or state government, these governments must comply with ADA requirements for accessibility. The ADA covers bus and rail service, transportation vehicles and facilities (including bus stops and rail stations). It also covers “paratransit” service, which is alternative transportation for people who cannot use bus or rail transit.
City, county or state governments that provide transportation services must provide paratransit alternatives (such as Tri-Met’s LIFT system in the Portland area) to individuals who cannot use fixed route services (such as public buses) because of a disability or other serious health condition. These alternative services must be comparable to the fixed route services.
Any public transportation facility built after 1992 must be fully accessible. Existing rail stations generally must be accessible, but some key stations have an exemption from coverage of the law until as late as 2020. All newly purchased and leased bus and rail vehicles must be fully accessible. At a minimum, one car per train must be accessible.
Air travel is regulated under different federal laws, specifically the Air Carrier Access Act and its regulations. As with other public transportation available to the traveling public, airlines are generally prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability in air travel, and they are required to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities in their facilities and in their aircraft.
If you believe a public transit system has violated your rights under the law, you can file a complaint with the transit agency, with the Federal Transit Agency, the federal Department of Justice, or file a private lawsuit. Because in most cases you are required to provide notice of your potential claims against a state or local public body within 180 days of your injury or loss in order to pursue them, you should not delay in doing so.
Legal editors: Megan Dolan and Caitlin Dolan, October 2019