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GPSolo Magazine

GPSolo July/August 2023: Disabilities in Law and in Law Practice

Disability Law 101

Marissa Ditkowsky


  • Disability law is all-encompassing, as disability affects all aspects of life, and it includes such areas as health law, consumer law, housing law, employment law, and more.
  • Continuing to check in with disabled clients about their needs over the course of the representation is important. A person might even have access needs that conflict or adjust over time.
  • Making sure that the client has autonomy and control over the representation is particularly important when working with disabled clients.
  • Law affecting disability rights include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), among others.
Disability Law 101
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When you think of “disability law,” you might automatically think about disability rights law. Disability rights law focuses on the enforcement of disability discrimination laws. However, disability law is much broader. Disability law is all-encompassing, as disability affects all aspects of life. Disability law is health law, consumer law, housing law, employment law, and more.

I even started a project based on this understanding: While working as a staff attorney at Tzedek DC (a nonprofit dedicated to safeguarding the legal rights and financial health of Washington, D.C., residents with low incomes), I led the organization’s Disabilities Community Project. My work focused on the ways that disabled people were uniquely and disproportionately affected and targeted by consumer and debt issues. In fact, consumer claims may help supplement disability discrimination claims, particularly in public accommodations cases, including by providing for additional damages.

Right now, I am Disability Economic Justice Counsel at the National Partnership for Women & Families. My work focuses on advancing policies that improve economic outcomes for disabled women, particularly disabled women of color. Our work focuses on issues including paid family and medical leave, the wage gap, maternal health, reproductive justice, and more.

Some may also think about disability rights as separate and apart from other types of civil rights claims. However, disabled people are not just disabled—we are whole individuals. Often, the ways our identities intersect affect our experiences. Black, Indigenous, Latine, LGBTQIA+, and other multi-marginalized disabled folks have unique experiences based on their identities; they may also face many forms of actionable discrimination.

We generally think about areas of law as siloed. However, it is rare that they are. Often, the injustices our clients experience are based on their identities or even the intersections of their identities. If we can convey that in our claims, it can help make their cases more effective. Including a genuine civil rights claim, of course, can bolster a case. But even when a narrative does not rise to the level of an additional civil rights claim, it can still help shape the claim. Lawyers in this field must be sure always to discuss these ideas with their clients to ensure they consent and are guiding this path.

Working with Disabled Clients

When practicing disability law, you will work with disabled clients. A discussion on working with disabled clients is ripe for a far more detailed article. However, there are a few basic things worth noting. Good lawyering is client-directed regardless of the client’s identity, but it is particularly important to ensure that you are aware of the needs, priorities, and goals of disabled clients. Disabled clients may have particular access needs that must be met. Not every person with the same disability has the same needs, and one person might even have access needs that conflict or adjust over time. Continuing to check in with clients about their needs over the course of the representation—not just at the beginning—is important.

It is always a good idea to explain things in plain language or in a way that is as simple as possible. “Legalese” is not accessible for most clients, disabled or not. Lawyers should also understand that American Sign Language (ASL) is a different language from English. There are also signing languages that are not ASL. Some folks who are Deaf only sign, or English might not be their first language. In those cases, insisting on captions or writing in place of oral communication would not work well. Always ask clients how they prefer to communicate. Understanding and mastering trauma-informed lawyering techniques are also important for working with disabled clients.

Making sure that the client has autonomy and control over the representation is a cornerstone of excellent and ethical lawyering for any client, but it is particularly important when working with disabled clients. Lawyers might sometimes make assumptions about what a disabled client can and cannot do or understand. Lawyers must always presume capacity. Even when capacity is “diminished,” lawyers generally have an ethical obligation to “as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.” (Model Rules of Pro. Conduct. r. 1.14(a) (Am. Bar Ass’n 1983).) A discussion about client capacity is another topic that is ripe for a separate, more detailed article.

Additionally, many clients who have disabilities may not identify as disabled. There is a stigma associated with disability. Clients also may not consider their conditions to qualify as a disability. For example, people with conditions such as anxiety, depression, diabetes, and chronic pain may not consider themselves to be disabled or recognize that their conditions qualify as a disability. You may describe to clients how the law may protect them, but following your client’s lead and respecting how they identify are important. This also includes whether an individual prefers language that is person-first (i.e., “person with a disability”) or identity-first (i.e., “disabled person”).

Key Laws

There are several disability rights laws that are helpful to understand, regardless of the area of disability law you hope to pursue:

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the expansive federal civil rights law that protects against disability discrimination in the private sector. The ADA has several titles:

  • Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination in the workplace by an employer with 15 or more employees. (42 U.S.C. §§ 12111(5)(A), 12112 (2022).) The prohibition against discrimination includes a failure to provide reasonable accommodations, unless it imposes an undue hardship. (42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5) (2022) (establishing several factors in considering what constitutes an undue burden).) An undue hardship is a “significant difficulty or expense”; it is not simply an inconvenience. (42 U.S.C. § 12111(10)(A) (2022).)
  • Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination by public entities, including by state and local governments and any public transportation services they provide. (42 U.S.C. §§ 12132, 12141–50, 12162 (2022).) Public entities are required to provide services “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” (28 C.F.R. § 35.130(d) (2022).) In Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), the Supreme Court held that undue institutionalization qualifies as discrimination under the ADA and its regulations. Care provided at home and in the community might be required in those instances. (Id.)
  • Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination by public accommodations, such as restaurants, stores, museums, hotels, and movie theaters. (42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)-2 (2022).)
  • Title IV of the ADA addresses telecommunications. It requires telecommunications companies to provide “functionally equivalent” services to disabled consumers—in particular, consumers who are hard of hearing, DeafBlind, or have a speech disability—and established relay services. (47 U.S.C. § 225 (2022).)
  • Title V of the ADA has miscellaneous provisions, including a prohibition against retaliation, rules of construction, and a provision noting that an “individual with a disability” does not include a person “currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.” (42 U.S.C. §§ 12201, 12203, 12205a, 12210(a), 12213 (emphasis added).)

Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act

The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act gives the attorney general authority to bring claims against institutions that cause harm to residents. (42 U.S.C. § 1997a (2022).)

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits disability discrimination by any entity that receives funding from the federal government. (29 U.S.C. § 794 (2022).) The anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation requirements of Section 504 work similarly to those of the ADA. Section 501 prohibits employment discrimination by federal agencies and establishes an affirmative action program for disabled employees. (29 U.S.C. § 791 (2022).) Section 503 prohibits employment discrimination by federal contractors and subcontractors that meet a certain threshold. (29 U.S.C. § 791 (2022).) Section 508 requires federal agencies to make electronic technology and communications accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities. (29 U.S.C. § 794d.)

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act prohibits disability discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of housing or any other housing-related transaction. (42 U.S.C. §§ 3604–06.) Reasonable accommodations must be provided as appropriate as exceptions or adjustments to certain processes, policies, or services. (42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B).) Reasonable modifications to one’s own living space must be permitted, but costs do generally fall on the disabled tenant. (42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(A).) A landlord may require a tenant to restore the property before a tenant vacates a unit. (Id.)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that disabled students ages three through 21 are entitled to access a free appropriate public education (commonly referred to as “FAPE”). (20 U.S.C. § 1412 (2022) (note that ages covered may vary depending on the state or circumstance).) A free appropriate public education includes special education and related services that meet the child’s specific needs. (20 U.S.C. § 1414(d) (2022).) The child’s needs and goals must be laid out in an individualized education program (IEP). (20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A).) Parents also have the right to request that an evaluation be conducted to determine whether their child has a disability. (20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(B).) While a request may be denied (with written notification), that does not necessarily mean the school is correct. (20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(3)(B) (2022)) The IDEA establishes procedures for filing a due process complaint. (20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), (k)(3)(A).)

Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits disability discrimination by air carriers. (49 U.S.C. § 41705 (2022).) It is important to understand that the ADA does not cover air carriers, but it does cover other forms of public transportation.

Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act

Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination based on disability, among other protected traits, by any health care program or activity that receives federal funding. (42 U.S.C. § 18116 (2022).) That includes physicians’ offices, hospitals, and other health care programs and activities.

Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that telecommunications providers make their equipment accessible for people with disabilities and that their services be accessible to people with disabilities if readily achievable. (47 U.S.C. § 255 (2022).)

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act updated requirements for hearing aid compatibility with telephones, ensured relay services were required to provide services between disabled consumers, clarified that accessibility requirements applied to advanced communications technologies and equipment, and updated closed captioning requirements to meet current technological realities. (21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, Pub. L. 111–260, 124 Stat. 2751 (2010).) Some of those changes included requiring video programming equipment with screens less than 13 inches to be capable of displaying closed captions, requiring television recording devices to pass through closed captions, and more. (Id.)

Voting Rights Act of 1965

There are several laws at play when thinking about accessibility in voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 states the following:

Any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.

52 U.S.C. § 10508 (2022).

The Voting Rights Act also limits the ability to use literacy tests as a qualification for voting. (52 U.S.C. § 10101(2)(c) (2022).) Although these tests were instituted to prevent enslaved peoples from voting, these tests also have a disparate impact on disabled people. Ableism and racism are historically connected. As Talila “TL” Lewis writes, “Ableism is formed and informed by anti-Blackness.” (Talila Lewis, Why I Don’t Use “Anti-Black Ableism” (& Language Longings), Talila A. Lewis (Aug. 17, 2020).)

Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act requires that all polling places be made accessible and, if that is not possible, that disabled or aging voters be assigned an accessible polling place or provided an alternative method for voting. (52 U.S.C. § 20102 (2022).) The act also requires that states make voting and registration aids available, including instructions printed in large type and information via telecommunications devices for Deaf individuals. (52 U.S.C. § 20104(a) (2022).) Finally, it establishes rules prohibiting states from requiring notarization or medical certification from disabled voters to receive an absentee ballot (the exception being that medical certification may be required to receive an absentee ballot after the deadline or to receive an absentee ballot automatically on a recurring basis). (52 U.S.C. § 20104(b).)

Help America Vote Act of 2002

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 outlines accessibility requirements for voting systems, among other requirements. (52 U.S.C. § 21081 (2022).)

Other Relevant Federal Laws

In addition to these civil rights laws, the Social Security Act, Medicare and Medicaid Act, and other laws provide important benefits for people with disabilities. While this public benefits framework is separate from civil rights work, it is important to understand. There may also be cases involving discrimination based on source of income in certain instances, such as under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). For example, discrimination in lending due to receipt of Social Security Disability Insurance may violate ECOA.

The list above is not exhaustive. This list provides only a basic description of the many protections covered by each of these laws. There are a number of other laws and regulations that offer protections for people with disabilities. Note that states and localities may have more expansive requirements and protections than federal law. There is also an extensive and complex history of case law that is important for lawyers to understand before practicing disability rights law.


Disability law is an expansive area of law. Not only are there a large number of laws, regulations, and precedents in case law establishing rights and protections for disabled people in various walks of life, but disability law is a cross-cutting topic that also involves an understanding of the ways that having a disability affects one’s experiences and perspective regardless of the area of law. Disability touches on every part of life—to be the best advocates possible, we must be ready to incorporate a disability rights and disability justice lens into whatever area of law we are practicing.