Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services or environments for people with disabilities.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) assists and protects people with physical, mental, hearing, vision, speech, developmental or other disabilities.  The ADA prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in government programs and services.  Accessibility is strongly related to universal design. 

people used wheeled chairs to roll through a festival

What is ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 states that new public and private business construction must be accessible.  The ADA also requires that existing businesses perform “readily achievable barrier removal” to ensure that all public spaces are made accessible to people with disabilities. The ADA is civil rights law that protects against discrimination based on disability.  The ADA requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities.  For more information such as the law/regulations, design standards or technical assistance materials, visit

Who advocates for people with disabilities?

The Tennessee Disability Coalition is an alliance of organizations and individuals joined to promote the full and equal participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of life.  To support this mission, the Coalition offers the following programs: Public Policy Program, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Network, Family Voices of Tennessee, Benefits to Work, Tennessee Autism Plan, Project BRAIN, and Discretionary Small Grants Program.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) was founded as E.A.C.H. in 1978. Most recently the agency was known as Disability Law & Advocacy Center of Tennessee.  Today, DRT is Tennessee’s Protection & Advocacy System and has represented—at no cost—more than 40,000 clients with disabilities. The mission is to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.  DRT provides services to people with disabilities across the state with numerous issues, including employment discrimination, safety in schools, abuse and neglect, and access to community resources and services.

The Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) is a state government agency that has the responsibility to provide quality health and supportive services to Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To do that, they want to create opportunities for the people supported to control their lives as much as possible in the least restrictive environment.  The vision is to support all Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live fulfilling and rewarding lives.

Tennessee has nine Area Agencies on Aging and Disability (AAAD).  These agencies plan and provide programs and services for older Tennesseans, as well as those with disabilities.  Click here to find the AAAD for where you live in Tennessee.

The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment, transportation, communication, medical diagnostic equipment, and information technology.

What guidelines address accessibility and the built environment?

Standards issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) address access to buildings and sites nationwide in new construction and alterations. These standards ensure access to the built environment for people with disabilities.  The ADA Standards establish design requirements for the construction and alteration of facilities subject to the law.  These enforceable standards apply to places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities.

What are examples of accessible design? 

  • Parking spaces are close to entrances.
  • Public transportation is accessible to people who use wheelchairs.
  • Streets with crosswalk signals sound a “beep” for people with vision loss.
  • There are clear routes to exits in emergency situations.
  • Floor spaces and hallways are free of equipment and other barriers.
  • Counters and service windows are low enough for everyone to reach, including people who use wheelchairs.
  • Alarm systems can be both seen and heard.
  • Staff and health care professionals can use sign language or have access to someone who can use sign language.
  • Videos on the web have captioning or written versions for people with hearing loss.
  • Print materials and signs are in large size font for people with low vision.
  • Raised lettering and Braille are used on signs, such as those on elevators.

What is the Rehabilitation Act?

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is often called the Rehab Act.  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies and programs that receive federal financial assistance.  Many state programs and grants are funded by federal assistance.  Some sections of the Rehab Act apply to accessibility.

  • Section 504 makes it illegal to discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities.  It requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  Section 504 makes sure that doctor’s offices, clinics and medical equipment are accessible to people with disabilities.  It also requires that students with disabilities get the educational services they need to succeed in school.
  • Section 508, as amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, requires federal agencies to develop, procure, maintain and use electronic and information technology (EIT) that is accessible to people with disabilities - regardless of whether or not they work for the federal government.

What is website accessibility?

The Internet is already a part of everyday life for many people. Learning, banking, bill paying, and shopping (including shopping for essentials) are just a few of the activities that have shifted online for millions of people. These were activities that, not too long ago, were often done exclusively in person and in a physical place. Those places have standards issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to address access. The Internet should be no different in that respect, but in the case of the Internet the "places" people visit are websites.

Websites should provide equal access and equal opportunity for all visitors. Specific accessibility features or tools ensure use and benefit from website content. Websites should include:

•           Alternative text for images,

•           Multiple options for input,

•           Video transcripts or subtitles, and

•           Documents and content that can be read by adaptive devices, like screen readers.

Web accessibility does require some planning. And when designing a new website, accessibility is easier to accomplish by including it in the conversation on Day 1. But it's also never too late to make a website more accessible, either with tools available online or by recruiting usability test volunteers who can help you identify your website's shortcomings. Whatever the stage of your site's development, accessibility is worth the investment. Website owners grow their audience, and website users enjoy inclusion and respect.

Government partners

U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division
Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Disability and Health

GSA Section
Section 508: Accessibility

U.S. Access Board

Tennessee Disability Coalition

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT)

Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD)

Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability

Tennessee Department of Education
Advisory Council for the Education of Students with Disabilities

Tennessee Department of Transportation 
Public Accessibility Office

Additional resources  


A parent’s guide to Section 504 in public schools

Tennessee Disability Pathfinder
County by county disability-specific information in Tennessee