Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a topic of concern for all businesses. All too often, we assume the ADA only applies to large employers or in certain circumstances. The reality is that the ADA applies to all employers in one fashion or another. Family business employers – no matter how small and no matter what industry – need to be familiar with this legislation and its impacts.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in several areas of public life and sets forth four main purposes behind enactment. First, to provide a national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Second, to provide standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Third, to ensure that the Federal Government is a leader in enforcement of eliminating discrimination against individuals with disabilities. And finally, to invoke congressional authority to address areas of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

The ADA defines “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Note that the ADA does not explicitly name all impairments it considers to be a disability. In addition, this definition regards “disability” as a legal, not medical, term. Accordingly, disability may be defined differently in other aspects of life and even under other laws.

The ADA is divided into five titles – employment (Title I), public services (Title II), public accommodations and services operated by private entities (Title III), telecommunications (Title IV), and miscellaneous provisions (Title V).

Title I requires employers of fifteen or more employees to provide individuals with disabilities equal work opportunities and benefits. Title I complaints must be filed with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and within 180 days of the discriminatory conduct. A Title I complaint may also be filed within 300 days of the discriminatory conduct if the claim is filed with a State or local fair employment practice agency. A lawsuit may be filed in Federal Court after the EEOC distributes a “right-to-sue” letter.

Title II requires State and local governments to provide individuals with disabilities equal opportunities to benefit from their programs and services, including public education, transportation, healthcare, and social services. Title II complaints may be filed with the Department of Justice within 180 days of the discriminatory conduct or through private lawsuits in Federal Court. A “right-to-sue” letter is not required before going to court for a Title II claim.

Title III requires public accommodations to comply with nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment of individuals with disabilities. A public accommodation includes private entities such as restaurants, hotels, recreation facilities, and retail stores. Title III complaints may be filed with the Department of Justice or through private lawsuits. A “right-to-sue” letter is not required before going to court for a Title III claim.

Title IV requires common carriers, such as telephone companies, to establish accessible and usable interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services (TRS) at all times that allow individuals with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate through telephone. Title IV is regulated by the Federal Communication Commission.

Title V includes several “miscellaneous provisions” such as state immunity, the ADA’s impact on insurance providers, illegal drug use, and attorney’s fees. In addition, Title V carves out certain conditions that do not fall under the definition of disabilities.

Familiarity with the ADA is important for employees with disabilities, but also for employers. An employer must be aware of the ADA’s employment requirements to ensure compliance and an employee with a disability must also be aware of such requirements to ensure receipt of equal work opportunities and benefits.