What Federal Laws Are Available to Help those with Special Needs?

Written by: Jerry Levinson

Here’s a quick synopsis about each federal law designed to help those in the special needs community.

Americans With Disabilities Act

This is the granddaddy of all disability laws. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications. But the law has been called as much of a gift to lawyers as it is to the disabled because of all the “gray areas” that invite litigation. For example, an “individual with a disability” is defined by the ADA not only as a person who actually is disabled in the commonly understood sense, but as a person “who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”


The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This law is generally considered the precursor of the ADA. It bars discrimination on the basis of disability in federally conducted
programs, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Telecommunications Act

To ensure that the disabled have access to once inaccessible products and services such as telephones, cell phones, pagers, call waiting and operator services, this law require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable.

Fair Housing Act

This law prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status and national origin. Its coverage includes private housing, housing that receives federal financial assistance and state and local government housing. It’s unlawful to discriminate in any aspect of selling or renting housing or to deny a dwelling to a buyer or renter because of the disability of that individual, an individual associated with the buyer or renter, or an individual who intends to live in the residence. Discrimination is also barred in financing, zoning practices, new construction design and advertising.

Air Carrier Access Act

This act bans discrimination in air transportation by domestic and foreign air carriers against qualified individuals with physical or mental impairments, but applies only to air carriers that provide regularly scheduled services for hire to the public.

Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

Under this law, polling places for federal elections must be physically accessible to the disabled. Where no accessible location for this purpose is available, a political subdivision must provide an alternate means of casting a ballot on the day of the election. This Act also requires states to make available registration and voting aids such as telecommunications devices — for disabled and elderly voters.

National Voter Registration Act

To increase the historically low registration rates of minorities and the disabled that have resulted from discrimination, the NVRA requires all offices of state-funded programs that are primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities to provide all program applicants with voter registration forms, to assist them in completing the forms, and to transmit completed forms to the appropriate state official.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

Under the IDEA, public schools are required to make available to all eligible disabled children a free, appropriate public education. This education must be provided in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs. Under the law, public school systems must develop Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s) for each child that reflect their individualized needs. Particular procedures must also be followed in the development of the IEPs which must be reviewed at least annually. Specialized teams including the child’s teacher, parents (subject to certain limited exceptions), the child (if determined appropriate) and an agency representative — are charged with developing the IEPs.

The Architectural Barriers Act

This law requires that buildings and facilities – designed, constructed or altered with federal funds – comply with federal accessibility standards. It also applies to buildings and facilities leased by federal agencies. ABA requirements are limited to architectural standards in new and altered buildings and in newly leased facilities.

Find Support

Looking for more information about the laws that exist to protect your child’s rights?

Visit the My Child Without Limits support community and talk to fellow parents, caregivers, and experts about the laws that protect individuals with disabilities.


Are you looking for resources to help your child?

Check out our Resource Locator to find the government and non-government agencies that can provide the services that your child needs.