Person-first language

Person-first language is a way to refer to someone who has a disability. With person-first language, the person is mentioned before their disability. For example, “a woman who is hard-of-hearing” is person-first language. In contrast, “a hard-of-hearing woman” is not person-first language. Person-first language conveys the idea that the person as a whole is more important than just their disability. Also, historically, people with disabilities have often been excluded or segregated from society. Person-first language may help to address this historical barrier.

Note that if a person prefers to be referred to without person-first language (such as “a Deaf man”), you should follow that preference.

Physical accessibility

Physical accessibility makes it possible for people to enter a building and use its features. With adequate physical accessibility, everyone—including, for example, a person using a wheelchair, walker, or other mobility aid—is able to enter the building and access all aspects of the building that anyone else can access. Curb cuts, ramps, elevators, accessible bathrooms, Braille on signs, and much more all play a role in physical accessibility. The 2010 Standards for Accessible Design includes technical specifications for providing physical accessibility.

Program access

In the context of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), program access is a technical term. Very generally, program access means that a person with a disability can participate in a program or service, so long as there is some reasonable way to make it happen. One reasonable way would be to move a class, meeting, or other offering to an accessible location, if one is needed. (This is somewhat different from the type of access required by the ADA in Title III for businesses.)


In the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the definition of disability includes a list with three items. When talking about the ADA, people often use the term prong to refer to one of those listed items, saying things like “the first prong of the definition.”

Public accommodation

Generally speaking, a public accommodation is a business or nonprofit organization open to the public where commerce takes place. Commerce happens when things are bought or sold, or when services are bought or sold. Examples are restaurants, stadiums, and hospitals. Additional examples include daycare centers, private schools, golf courses, and zoos. Private transportation—such as a touring bus company, taxi service, or cruise line—also falls into this category. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers public accommodations, and it sets out twelve broad categories for what is a public accommodation. If you’re curious about the details, see the Definitions section of Title III.

Public entity

In Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), generally speaking, a public entity is a state or local government, as well as any agency, office, or department run by a state or local government. Examples include public libraries, city police departments, community colleges, public schools, county social services, and state vocational rehabilitation agencies.

Public facility

In Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a public facility is one that is owned, operated, or maintained by a state or local government entity. Examples include public schools, municipal buildings and parking lots, borough halls, county courthouses, and much more.

Qualified individual

The term qualified individual is used differently in different parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

  • Title 1: Title 1, which deals with employment, is concerned about discrimination against people who are qualified to do a job. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) uses specific language to describe how to tell whether someone is a qualified individual. Being qualified includes having the skills, experience, and background to meet a job’s requirements.
  • Title II and Title III: Title II and Title III use the term qualified individual in a different way from Title I. Title II covers state and local government (public entities), while Title III covers businesses and nonprofit organizations open to the public (public accommodations). Public entities and public accommodations must not discriminate against a person based on disability, so long as that person is otherwise qualified to benefit from, participate in, or access programs and services. For example, if a person must be a county resident to access the county’s social services, then a person with a disability must also be a county resident in order to gain access. In these cases, a qualified individual cannot be discriminated against based on a disability. This may require a reasonable modification to a practice or policy, the provision of auxiliary aids or services for communication, the removal of physical barriers, or the removal of communication- or transportation-related barriers.

Reasonable accommodation

The term reasonable accommodation is used somewhat differently in different laws:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Under the ADA, reasonable accommodation refers to the workplace. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines a reasonable accommodation as “In general, an accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.”

A reasonable accommodation can be a physical change, a policy change, or a change in how an employee works. It can also be a piece of equipment given to an employee. A reasonable accommodation allows a person with a disability an equal opportunity to do a job and its functions, or to have an equal opportunity to apply for a position. For example, a person with a visual impairment might require assistive technology software in order to “read” email or an employee who uses a wheelchair for mobility may need a ramp to be installed. Note that an employer does not have to offer a reasonable accommodation that would pose an undue hardship to the employer. An undue hardship is a great difficulty or expense.

Rehabilitation Act: This act covers federal employment as well as any agency or contractor receiving federal financial assistance. For example, most colleges and universities are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. A student with a disability may receive an adjustment in their academics—such as a sign language interpreter—that allows them to have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from education.

Fair Housing Act (FHA): Under the FHA, a reasonable accommodation is a change in a housing provider’s policies to allow a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their residence. For example, a reasonable accommodation under the FHA could be an apartment complex allowing a resident to have an assistance animal even though pets are not permitted otherwise.

Reasonable modification

The term reasonable modification is used differently in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA):

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The term reasonable modification is used in Title II and Title III of the ADA. Title II covers state and local government (public entities), while Title III covers businesses and nonprofit organizations open to the public (public accommodations). A reasonable modification is a change in a policy, practice, or procedure of either a public entity or a public accommodation that is done to offer equal access and equal opportunity for a person with a disability. There are limits on these changes, and that is where reasonable comes in. Title II public entities—such as a public library or county social service office—do not have to make a modification that would fundamentally alter a service, program, or activity that they must provide to the public. A Title III public accommodation—such as a private doctor’s office, store, or hotel—does not have to make a modification that would fundamentally alter the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations it offers to the public—in other words, its goods and services. An example of a reasonable modification would be to permit a service animal to go where the public may go in a building, even though animals are not generally allowed. So then, what is a fundamental alteration? It is a change that is so significant to a policy, practice, or procedure that it would change the nature of what is offered. For example, it would be a fundamental alteration for a doctor specializing in foot issues to treat a heart condition.

Fair Housing Act (FHA): Reasonable modification has a very different meaning under the FHA. Under the FHA, a reasonable modification is a structural change in the physical environment. Examples include installing grab bars in bathrooms, lowering kitchen counters, and installing a visual fire alarm.

Rehabilitation Act: The Rehabilitation Act prohibits any program or activity receiving federal funding from discriminating against people with disabilities. It has several sections, each of which concerns a different area of possible discrimination, such as federal workplace practices, architectural barriers, access to programs and services, procurement of electronic and informational goods and services—including websites—and more.

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