ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a civil rights law that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to equal opportunity and access to employment, public services, and public accommodations and services operated by public and private entities.  The Act prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities.  As stated in Chapter 2 of the FTA ADA circular, “as a comprehensive civil rights law, the ADA grants the same rights and responsibilities to individuals with disabilities as are available to all individuals. Fundamentally, the overarching requirement of the law is that entities cannot discriminate against individuals with disabilities.”

Transit managers should be aware that compliance with the ADA covers virtually every aspect of transit operations, including transit system employees, service provision, vehicle purchasing, transit facility design, and information about transit services.  Daily operations are impacted by the need to deliver consistent, high quality service to members of the riding public regardless of their disabilities or abilities. 

The ADA regulations that focus on public transportation providers, 49 CFR Parts 27, 37, 38, and 39, are extensive and often complex. This ADA page in the Transit Manager’s Toolkit provides a very brief introduction to the major requirement areas new rural transit managers need to be aware of on the first day on the job.  The National RTAP provides a separate ADA Toolkit containing more expansive information which all rural transit managers should become familiar with.  In addition to the “deeper dive” ADA Toolkit, also refer to FTA Circular 4710.1, Americans with Disabilities Act: Guidance, for in-depth compliance information as well as recommended practices.    

This section of the toolkit is organized in the following subsections:

This section introduces the ADA requirements for public transportation entities and their private contractors that provide public transportation services.  Note that even if a public transportation provider is a private entity, these requirements may still apply.  When a public entity contracts with, or has another arrangement (such as a grant) to operate fixed route or demand responsive service, the public entity’s ADA requirements also apply to the public transportation operated by a private entity, which is considered to be “standing in the shoes” of the public entity (49 CFR Section 37.23). For more information on whether a private organization or contractor must follow the requirements for public entities, see Section 1.3.2 of FTA Circular 4710.1.  

Also note that these are highlighted aspects of the ADA regulations as they pertain to public transportation entities and not an exhaustive list of all compliance requirements.  ADA regulations are also issued by other federal agencies such as the Departments of Justice (DOJ), Education (DOE), Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor (DOL), Interior (DOI), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  If an organization provides services other than transportation and/or receives grant funding from federal agencies other than the FTA, it may have additional requirements that apply to these services or funds.  As an employer, an organization is also subject to employment-related ADA requirements.

The information presented in this section is based on the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT regulations in 49 CFR Part 37- Transportation Services for Individuals with Disabilities (ADA)

First, several overarching requirements are briefly discussed. Next, service requirements that apply to all providers regardless of the type of service are introduced, followed by requirements that only apply to specific types of service, labeled accordingly.  Finally, this section touches upon ADA requirements for transportation facilities.    

Overarching requirements


The nondiscrimination requirements in 49 CFR Section 37.5 state that an organization may not discriminate against people with disabilities. This is the overarching requirement that needs to be applied throughout transportation system and the entire organization.  

Clear organizational and operating policies can help a transit agency clarify exactly how it will deliver public transit service in a nondiscriminatory manner.  If the agency has not already done so, it is a good idea to develop a set of service policies so that passengers know exactly what they can expect from the transit system. These policies are applicable to ALL passengers regardless of ability.  Well-articulated policies demonstrate that all passengers are being treated equitably.  They should be posted on the transit agency’s web site available in accessible formats upon request.

Examples of policies that the U.S. DOT regulations explicitly cite as discriminatory include compelling an individual with a disability to use a separate transportation service than the general public service when they are capable of using the public service, imposing special charges, or requiring an individual with a disability to be accompanied by an attendant (49 CFR Section 37.5). For additional examples and guidance, see Chapter 2 of FTA Circular 4710.1.

Reasonable Modification of Policies, Practices, and Procedures

Public transportation entities are required to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when the modifications are necessary for an individual with a disability to use the service, subject to certain limitations, and need to have a process in place for considering modification requests (49 CFR Section 37.5).  For examples and guidance, see Chapter 2 of FTA circular 4710.1 as well as Appendix E for 49 CFR Part 37.

Complaint Process

Every transportation provider is required to designate a responsible employee and adopt procedures for resolving ADA-related complaints.  Complaint procedures must be accessible for people with disabilities, include due process, and document responses (49 CFR Section 37.17).

ADA Requirements for ALL Service Types

The following requirements apply to all of public transportation services, including fixed route, route deviation, and demand responsive. 

  • Maintenance of accessibility features:  A transit agency must ensure that all vehicles and related transit facilities are maintained in operative condition so that they are usable by individuals with disabilities [49 CFR Section 37.161(a)].  This includes keeping vehicle lifts/ramps in operative condition through a system of regular and frequent maintenance checks of lifts [49 CFR Section 37.163(b)], such as cycling the lift as part of each pre-trip inspection as well as conducting interval-based preventive maintenance.  All accessibility features must be promptly repaired if they are damaged or out of order, and reasonable steps to accommodate individuals with disabilities who would otherwise use the feature must be taken until it has been repaired [49 CFR Section 37.161(b)].
  • Use of accessibility features: Vehicle operators and other personnel must make use of the accessibility-related equipment or features that are required under 49 CFR Part 38 [49 CFR Section 37.167(e)]. This includes using the wheelchair lift or ramp, securement devices, and audio equipment for certain fixed route announcement requirements on fixed route. Operators must assist individuals with disabilities who need or request assistance with the use of securement systems, ramps and lifts.  If this requires the vehicle operators to leave their seats, they must do so [Section 37.165(f)]. They must also permit individuals with disabilities who do not use wheelchairs, including standees, to use a vehicle’s lift or ramp to enter the vehicle [Section 37.165(g)].  Operators must provide individuals with disabilities adequate time to complete boarding or disembarking from the vehicle [49 CFR Section 37.167(i)]. Operators cannot refuse to permit a passenger who uses a lift to disembark from a vehicle at any designated stop, unless:
    • the lift cannot be deployed,
    • the lift will be damaged if it is deployed, or
    • temporary conditions at the stop, not under the control of the transit operator, preclude the safe use of the stop by all passengers [49 CFR Section 37.167(g)].
  • Accommodating people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids:  U.S. DOT defines a wheelchair as “a mobility aid belonging to any class of three- or more-wheeled devices, usable indoors, designed or modified for and used by individuals with mobility impairments, whether operated manually or powered” (49 CFR Section 37.3).  Although not a complete list, the following are some of the requirements to accommodate riders in wheelchairs and other mobility aids, such as scooters that are primarily designed for use by individuals with mobility impairments:
    • Accommodating riders who use wheelchairs if the lift and vehicle can physically accommodate them. 49 CFR Part 38 requires that vehicles accommodate occupied wheelchairs weighing a minimum 600 pounds and measuring 30” x 48.” However, many vehicles and lifts are manufactured to accommodate larger and heavier wheelchairs.  A transit system is obligated to carry a wheelchair and occupant if the lift and vehicle can physically accommodate them, unless doing so is inconsistent with legitimate safety requirements. “Legitimate safety requirements” include such circumstances as a mobility device of such size that it would block an aisle or would interfere with the safe evacuation of passengers in an emergency (49 CFR Section 37.165 and Appendix D to Part 37 under Section 37.165).
    • Providing service to a wheelchair user even if their mobility device cannot be secured or restrained satisfactorily by the vehicle’s securement system.  However, an agency is not required to permit wheelchairs to ride in places other than designated securement locations (49 CFR Section 37.165), nor to transport an individual who refuses to allow their wheelchair to be secured if the agency’s policy requires securement (FTA circular 4710.1, section 2.4.3, page 2-14).
    • Asking that individuals sitting in the priority seating area, or fold-down seats in the wheelchair securement area, relocate if an individual needs to use that priority seating because of a disability or needs to secure a wheelchair [49 CFR Section 37.167(j)].

For more information on accommodating riders who use mobility aids, see FTA Circular 4710.1, Section 2.4 Lift/Ramp and Securement Use.

  • Allowing service animals:  U.S. DOT defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing animal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items” (49 CFR Section 37.3).  Transit agencies must allow service animals to accompany individuals with disabilities in vehicles and facilities [49 CFR Section 37.167(d)]. Staff may ask if an animal is a service animal or ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform, but cannot require special ID cards for the animal or ask about the person’s disability. However, a transit agency may refuse to transport a service animal that would “pose a direct threat to the health or safety of drivers or other riders, create a seriously disruptive atmosphere, or are otherwise not under the rider’s control” (FTA Circular 4710.1, Section 2.6, Pages 2-17).
  • Allowing portable oxygen:  operator transit agency cannot prohibit an individual with a disability from traveling with a respirator or portable oxygen supply (provided the devices are properly secured per 49 CFR Subtitle B, Chapter 1, Subchapter C.  U.S. DOT Office of Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials) [49 CFR Section 37.167(h)].
  • Training requirements:  Transit agencies must ensure that all personnel (including contractors) are trained to proficiency, as appropriate to their duties. Personnel must be able to operate vehicles and equipment safely and properly assist individuals with disabilities using the service in a respectful and courteous way, with appropriate attention to the difference among individuals with disabilities (49 CFR Section 37.173).
  • Information accessibility:  Service information must be available in accessible formats to individuals with disabilities [49 CFR Section 37.167(f)].  This means printed materials must be made available, upon request, in a format that is accessible to the person making the request, such as large print, Braille, or electronic files that can be read by screen reading technology. As stated in FTA Circular 4710.1, Section 2.8 Accessible Information, 2.8.1 Accessible Formats, the information needs to be made available in a format the person can use, and FTA encourages agencies to work with individuals who request information to determine the most appropriate alternative formats.  Online information also needs to be accessible to people who use screen readers.  Audio information needs to be available in visual formats for people with hearing disabilities.  For more information, see Section 2.8 - Accessible Information of FTA Circular 4710.1.

Requirements for Specific Service Types

While many requirements apply to all agencies providing public transportation service, there are some requirements that are specific to different modes of service.  

Fixed Route Service

Fixed route service operates “along a prescribed route according to a fixed schedule” (49 CFR Section 37.3). If a rural public transit system includes fixed route service, the following non-exhaustive list introduces the requirements that apply to this service (in addition to the requirements that apply to all types of transit services.)   For more information, consult the National RTAP ADA Toolkit, and refer to Chapter 6 in FTA Circular 4710.1.

  • All new vehicles purchased for operation in fixed route service must be accessible to people with disabilities including those who use wheelchairs (49 CFR Section 37.71), i.e., meet the accessibility requirements detailed in 49 CFR Part 38 [49 CFR Section 37.7(a)]. 
  • If a lift becomes inoperable, and there is a spare vehicle available, the vehicle with the inoperative lift must be taken out of service before the beginning of the vehicle’s next day of service and the lift must be repaired before the vehicle returns to service.  If there is not a spare vehicle available, or if taking the vehicle out of service would reduce the availability of transportation service provided, a transit agency may keep the vehicle with the inoperative lift in service for no more than five days in a rural area or three days in areas with a population of over 50,000 [49 CFR Section 37.163(e)].
  • Internal announcements must be made to inform riders of upcoming stops. At a minimum, these announcements must be made at transfer points with other fixed routes, at major intersections and destination points, at intervals along a route sufficient to permit individuals with visual impairments or other disabilities to be oriented to their location, and at any requested stop. [49 CFR Section 37.167(b)] This obligation can be met by requiring bus operators to announce stops or by using an automated stop announcement system onboard the vehicle. For more information, see Section 6.6 - Stop Announcements of FTA Circular 4701.1.
  • If a system has stops served by more than one bus route, riders with a disability must be provided with the means of identifying which bus has arrived or to identify themselves as a person seeking a ride on a particular route [49 CFR Section 37.167(c)].  External route identification announcements can be automated or spoken by the driver. For more information, see Section 6.7 - Route Identification of FTA Circular 4701.1.
  • An agency is are required to provide complementary paratransit services for those who are unable to use accessible fixed route services as detailed under 49 CFR Part 37, Subpart F.  (This requirement does do not apply to commuter or intercity bus services.)  ADA complementary paratransit is origin to destination service that is comparable to the fixed route service in terms of geographic coverage, days and hours of service, and fares.  Trip requests must be accepted up until close of business on the preceding day, for any trip purpose, without capacity constraints for eligible individuals (49 CFR Section 37.131).  U.S. DOT regulations limit eligibility to individuals with disabilities who are unable to use the fixed route service for all or some of their trips. This includes the inability to access vehicles, transit stops, or facilities, or to independently navigate through the system (49 CFR Section 37.123).  The ADA complementary paratransit requirements are extensive and complex.  For a more expansive introduction, consult the National RTAP ADA Toolkit, and refer to Chapters 8 and 9 in FTA Circular 4710.1 for in-depth guidance.

Demand Responsive Service

According to U.S. DOT ADA regulations, a “demand responsive system” is any system of transporting individuals which is not a fixed route system (49 CFR Section 37.3).  This type of service is also commonly referred to as “demand response,” but for this section of the toolkit, the U.S. DOT/FTA term is used.

General public demand responsive service is found in many rural and tribal areas.  As stated in Chapter 7 of FTA circular 4710.1, “demand responsive systems encompass a wide variety of service types, including traditional dial-a-ride service, taxi subsidy service, vanpool service, and route deviation service.”  Requirements for route deviation service are introduced in the next section, because there are some nuances that can affect whether it is considered demand responsive and not fixed route.

A demand responsive system may operate non-accessible vehicles as long as equivalent service for people with disabilities is provided in accessible vehicles.  Service provided to individuals with disabilities should be equivalent to the service provided to other individuals in the following ways (49 CFR Section 37.105):

  • Response time
  • Fares
  • Geographic service area
  • Hours and days of service
  • Restrictions or priorities based on trip purpose
  • Availability of information and reservation capability
  • Any constraints on capacity or service availability

For more information, consult the National RTAP ADA Toolkit, and refer to Chapter 7 in FTA circular 4710.1.

Route Deviation Service

Route deviation service, also referred to as deviated fixed-route or flexible route service, is often operated in rural areas.  For the purpose of ADA requirements, this type of service can be hard to categorize. Accurately categorizing a system is important because it will determine the requirements that systems will be required to follow.  ADA regulations categorize transit systems as either fixed route or demand responsive.  While some systems are clearly one or the other, systems that provide deviated route service can vary depending upon the specific service characteristics

According to U.S. DOT regulations, route deviation service is considered to be demand responsive service, and because of that it must follow the requirements for equivalent level of service for its riders with disabilities.  However, FTA circular 4710.1 makes a distinction between service that allows anyone to request route deviations and service that only allows riders with disabilities to request the deviations.  

If the system’s service allows all riders to request route deviations, the system is considered demand responsive and must follow the equivalent service requirements (which are listed in the section above) when serving riders with disabilities. As stated in FTA circular 4710.1, “typically, all vehicles used in route deviation service are accessible, as it would be difficult to provide equivalent service with a mixed fleet.”

However, if the system provides route deviations only to customers with disabilities, this is considered fixed route service, and the transit agency is obligated to meet the requirements for complementary paratransit service.  The complementary paratransit service can be provided by route deviation (comingling complementary paratransit and fixed route) as long as it meets all of the requirements in 49 CFR Part 37 Subpart F, including the ADA paratransit service criteria, with an eligibility determination (and appeal) process for those who would like to use the service.  

To read about the distinction between route deviation service that is considered to be demand responsive as compared to route deviation service that is considered to be fixed route, see Section 7.5.4 (pages 7-10 to 7-12) of FTA circular 4710.1.  National RTAP’s Moving from Demand Response to a Deviated Fixed-Route Best Practices Spotlight article is a helpful resource for transit agencies that are considering route deviation service.

Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles

When procuring new passenger vehicles that are required to be accessible (all fixed route and many demand responsive vehicles), the vehicles must be manufactured to comply with U.S. DOT ADA regulations. Minimum vehicle accessibility specifications for buses and vans are defined in 49 CFR Part 38, Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles, Subpart B, with specifications for other types of vehicles (such as trains, over-the-road buses, and trams) found in other subparts.  Vehicle accessibility requirements include:

  • mobility aid accessibility and securement systems
  • specifications for doors, steps, and thresholds
  • signage at priority seating and securement areas
  • specifications for interior handrails and stanchions
  • requirements for lighting
  • specifications for fare boxes and exterior destination and route signs on vehicles that have these elements. 

Vehicles longer than 22 feet have additional requirements, including specifications for public address systems and stop request controls.  For more information, see the Physical Standards section of the ADA Toolkit and Chapter 4 of FTA Circular 4710.1.

ADA Requirements for Transportation Facilities

If a public entity constructs new facilities to be used for providing designated public transportation services, they must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids (49 CFR Section 37.41).  If a public entity alters an existing facility or part of an existing facility used for providing designated public transportation services, and that alteration affects or could affect the usability of the facility, alterations must be made in a way that is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities (Section 37.43). This applies to improvements made at bus stops, such as installing shelters or constructing sidewalks.  For more information, see Chapter 3 of FTA Circular 4710.1.  For guidance on bus stop accessibility, see the Toolkit for the Assessment of Bus Stop Accessibility and Safety developed by the former Easter Seals Project ACTION.

ADA Requirements for Employers

As employers, transit agencies also need to comply with ADA requirements for employees, found in 29 CFR Part 1630 - Regulations to Implement the Equal Employment Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Employers are prohibited from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in employment decisions.  The ADA regulations of the U.S. Department of Labor require employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer.  Excluded from this requirement are Indian tribes, the U.S. government, corporations wholly owned by the U.S. government, and any bona fide private membership club (other than a labor organization) that is exempt from taxation under Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.  For information, visit the Disability Discrimination web page of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  

Section Sources 

Updated February 5, 2020