IEPs & 504 Plans

Happy Birthday, Americans with Disabilities Act

Our expert explains the 25-year-old legislation the Americans with Disabilities Act introduced, and how it can help student and adults with ADHD.

Manila file folders stacked on a desk. Keeping papers neat is an organization hack that always works.
Manila file folders stacked on a desk. Keeping papers neat is an organization hack that always works.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turned a quarter century old recently, so it’s a good time to look at this important law to see how it has changed through the years and what it means now for individuals with ADHD and related challenges.

The ADA was signed into law in July 1990 and was intended as an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of the 1970s. It applies to anyone with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” It also covers those who have a history of such an impairment, or who are perceived by others as having such an impairment. Although it specifically mentions a long list of disabilities — learning, concentrating, and thinking – an individual does not have to have a specific disability to be covered.

After the law was enacted, a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases narrowed the definition of disability, excluding, for example, conditions that could be “mitigated” by medication. That was not what Congress intended and they weren’t going to sit by and let the Court redefine their legislation. Specifically mentioning their intent to address Supreme Court decisions, Congress passed The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of disability and became effective on January 1, 2009.

So, what does this mean for children and adults with ADHD, and learning disabilities?

• If your child is in pre-K through twelfth grade, you are best served by IDEA or 504, even though ADA applies. These laws give more services, parental involvement, and legal recourse than ADA.

• In college and the workplace, 504 and the ADA are very similar, since 504 has separate sections for school kids and adults.

• The ADA requires only “reasonable accommodations,” not services.

• Under the ADA, individuals still must be able to do the essential elements of a job or meet the academic standards of a school.

• If you are dealing with testing organizations, such as the SAT or ACT, the ADA applies; there is a separate section of the law that specifically covers them.

• Even if another law is most appropriate, keep in mind that the ADA can apply too.

• The revised version of the ADA requires that:

  1. The definition of disability must be broadly interpreted
  2. You can be disabled in only one area of your life, but not all
  3. Use of “mitigating measures,” such as medication that improves attention, does not mean that someone with ADHD is not covered by this law.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the ADA, continues to remind schools, employers, and testing organizations of their obligation to broadly define disability and extend ADA accommodations.