The scope of rights guaranteed to Americans with autism and other disabilities has broadened considerably in recent decades thanks to advocacy work, Congressional action and landmark court cases. The result: Several legal structures that allow people with disabilities to obtain an education, pursue a career, live independently and defend themselves against discrimination. This page provides an overview of the major legal services available to people with autism spectrum disorder.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a sweeping piece of legislation that addresses discrimination against people with physical and mental disabilities and mandates many measures to make services and products accessible to people with disabilities.
Under the ADA, an employer generally cannot refuse to hire a qualified candidate based on that candidate’s disability. The government is also prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities. Furthermore, the ADA requires certain accessibility standards for restaurants, hotels, stores and other public accommodations, as well as telecommunications.
The Olmstead decision
In 1999, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Olmstead v. L.C. declared a policy of inclusion under the ADA. Rather than putting people with disabilities in institutions or other segregated environments, public entities are expected to offer community-based services, giving everyone the opportunity to participate in society.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives every person with a disability the right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible. It does not mandate the best possible educational program for each student, but it requires educators to assess each student individually – based on their unique needs and behaviors, not labels.
States must meet IDEA’s minimum requirements to receive federal funding. Some states provide more than IDEA requires, but none may fail to meet IDEA’s national standard.
Individualized Education Plan
Educators use information from their assessment of a student to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for that student. The IEP process can involve teachers, other professionals (such as psychologists or therapists), the student’s parents and even the student. It determines the student’s placement (in general or special education) and may prescribe supports to address behaviors or sensitivities.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which keeps students’ education records private, is supplemented by IDEA provisions for students with disabilities. IDEA requires a public agency to inform a student’s parents when the agency no longer needs certain information about the student; the parents can then tell the agency to destroy its copy of the information. When the student turns 18, he or she gets control of his/her education records, and the student and the parents must be informed of the handover.
This national network, established in the 1970s after the Willowbrook scandal, consists of Protection and Advocacy Systems (P&As) and Client Assistance Programs (CAPs) in every state to provide legal support to people with disabilities. Organized under the National Disability Rights Network, the largest legal-based advocacy provider for people with disabilities in the United States, P&A and CAP groups help people secure Social Security benefits, defend themselves against abuse, obtain an appropriate IEP and more.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil liberties law that forbids discrimination on the basis of disability by federally funded programs. Its sections address several important areas. Section 504 makes special education and other academic services available to students with disabilities, using a broader interpretation of “disability” than IDEA. Other sections mandate accessibility standards for government information and ban employment discrimination by the government and its contractors and subcontractors.
Social Security’s disability programs provide some benefits for people with disabilities. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program gives money to people who meet its requirements (people who were working but can no longer do so), while the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program pays people with disabilities who have limited income.