This guidebook was developed by the Cape Organization for Rights of the Disabled (CORD) with a grant from the Town of Barnstable and the CORD Peer Assistive Technology Project, which is affiliated with the Massachusetts Assistive Technology Partnership and funded by a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education and administered by the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
CORD would like to thank the Massachusetts Office on Disability for use of the booklet “Disability Laws in Massachusetts” to create this guide and the Disability Law Center and the Mass. Advocacy Center for their help.
Other publications used to create this guide:
- “Assistive Technology: A Basic Training Manual” by the Massachusetts Assistive Technology Partnership
- “Chapter 766 Regulations” published by the Massachusetts Dept. of Education
- “Federal Register, Part II”, U.S. Dept. of Education
- “Moving On: Planning for the Future” by the Massachusetts Transition Initiative
- “Erasing the Hate — A Guide to Your Civil Rights in School: Your Right to be Free From Discrimination, Harassment and Hate-Motivated Violence” by the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General
Compiled by Cathy Taylor, ADA Specialist
Cape Organization for Rights for the Disabled
Years ago, if you had cerebral palsy, an intellectual disability, mental illness, or another disability, your life would be much different than it is now. Chances are you would not be allowed to go to school. Few stores would have ramps. Playing sports or going to camp with your friends would be out of the questions. Hospitals didn’t have TTYs. You might not hold a job, get married, or raise a family.
Today, life is different. After decades of fighting and protesting, people with disabilities have won the right to live in their communities alongside people without disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and other laws guarantee your right to be part of society. but the fight isn’t over. People with disabilities must continue to fight — to advocate — to be sure those rights don’t slip away.
For most of your life your parents or guardians have probably advocated for you. At some point, however, you must learn to advocate for yourself and then, perhaps, for others. In order to do this, you must know what your rights are; you must know something about the laws. This guide was created to give you the information you need to help protect your civil rights.
- Many of the laws described in this guide (and some that aren’t) can help you access assistive technology?
- You can get free telephone equipment if you can’t use standard equipment?
- State must provide telecommunications relay services for TTY users?
- There’s a wheelchair lemon law?
Did you know …
- Physical access to public buildings is required by law?
- Voting places must be accessible?
- Your town cannot refuse to let you put a ramp on your home if the ramp complies with state laws?
Did you know …
- There are laws requiring accessible parking spaces?
- People with HP plates or placards don’t have to pay parking meters?
Did you know …
- You have rights when riding on buses (such as Greyhound), trains, cabs, and planes?
- Drivers must stop and let a person with a white can or guide dog cross the street?
Did you know …
- People with mental illness or an intellectual disability have specific rights when receiving treatment?
- People with certain disabilities can get exemptions on excise, sales, and property taxes?
- People who are deaf have the right to an interpreter if they are arrested or must go to court?
Did you know …
- There are federal and state laws that protect your rights when you rent a home or apartment?
- Sometimes a landlord has to install grab bars, install a ramp and widen doorways?
- Your landlord may have to modify his policies to accommodate your disability?
- In some circumstances you can have an animal live with you even if your landlord has a “no pets” policy?
Did you know …
- There are ways to fight back when you are denied your rights or discriminated against?
- Disability laws protect teenagers and children with disabilities, not just adults?
- That there are more laws than those referenced above? Read on to learn about your rights!
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that was passed in 1990. It protects people with disabilities of all ages from discrimination. The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment (such as low vision, deafness, speech disability, cerebral palsy, HIV, heart disease, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, depression, learning disabilities, and more) that substantially limits one or more major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, breathing, learning, working, etc.)
In addition to people with disabilities, the ADA also protects people who have a record of having a disability (such as someone who had cancer, drug addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness in the past), people who are regarded as having a disability, and people who were wrongly classified as having a disability. If you are denied a job as a waiter because you have severe scars from a fire, you are protected. If you are rumored to be a drug addict, you are also protected by the ADA from discrimination.
The ADA also protects against discrimination on the basis of association. Your family and friends cannot be discriminated against because you have a disability. If you join a disability rights organization or work with people with disabilities, you are protected against discrimination.
The three main sections of the ADA cover employment, public entities (state and local governments) and public accommodations (businesses).
Title I of the ADA requires that employers with 15 or more employees do not discriminate against qualified employees or applicants with disabilities. To be qualified means you are able to do the main duties or essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. The Massachusetts Employment Discrimination Law is similar to the ADA but applies to employers with six or more employees.
Employers must offer equal pay, benefits and advancement opportunities to employees with disabilities.
A reasonable accommodation is any change to a job or workplace or the use of assistive technology that helps you, as an employee with a disability, overcome a barrier in your work or work environment. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to any employee with a known disability. If your disability is not obvious, you must ask for the accommodation. If you don’t need an accommodation, then you do not have to tell your employer that you have a disability.
Although your employer doesn’t have to give you the exact accommodation that you ask for, what is provided must be effective for you. Employers don’t have to provide top-of-the-line assistive technology. Basic models are acceptable unless you need extra features to do your job.
Your employer can ask for documentation or proof that you need the requested accommodation. A letter from your doctor should be sufficient.
You cannot be charged for reasonable accommodations. An accommodation request that creates an undue hardship (very hard to do or too expensive) to the employer doesn’t have to be provided but you may be able to work out a compromise. If you’re unsure whether or not your request is truly a hardship, contact your local independent living center (ILC) or a disability rights organization for advice. Resources are listed at the end of this guide.
If you don’t want an accommodation, you don’t have to accept one. If you refuse an accommodation and then are unable to do your job, you can be fired.
Your employer is not allowed to discuss your disability or accommodations with other employees. Only people who need to know, such as your direct supervisor, are allowed to have this information.
As an applicant with a disability, you are also entitled to reasonable accommodations. They may include having a company mail you a job application rather than making you pick it up in person, being given assistance in completing the application, or having your job interview in an accessible location.
The ADA prohibits employers from asking about your disability. They can’t ask questions related to your past use of sick leave, hospitalizations, workers’ compensation claims, or treatment for drug addiction or alcoholism. They can’t require you to take a physical examination unless all employees in that job are required to take one and they’ve offered you the job. The job offer can be conditional on you passing the exam.
During a job interview, employers may ask if you can do the job functions with or without reasonable accommodations. If you are asked to demonstrate how you would do your job, reasonable accommodations must be provided if you need them.
Employers cannot refuse to hire you just because you have a disability but they also do not have to hire you just because you have a disability.
Communication with people with hearing, vision, and speech disabilities must be as effective as communication with people without disabilities. Auxiliary aids and alternative formats must be provided when needed. An auxiliary aid is something that will help with communication. Alternative formats are printed materials that are presented in a way that meets your needs as a person with a disability. You cannot be charged for auxiliary aids or alternative formats. If you need an auxiliary aid or alternative format, you must request it. Be sure to make your request as soon as possible so that there is time to get it. Substitutions can be provided as long as they are effective. For example, if you request a brochure in Braille, it may be offered on tape instead. If you ask for an assistive listening device for a meeting, you may be offered CART services.
If what is offered isn’t effective, explain why. Your request for CART for a town meeting may be denied at first because an interpreter has already been hired, but if you don’t know sign language, the interpreter won’t be effective. Braille might work for one person who is blind but not for another.
If a request can’t be met, other means of communication must be explored. A meeting can be rescheduled. Portions of a large directory can be provided in Braille. Requests that create an undue burden or a fundamental alteration don’t have to be provided.
People with cognitive disabilities (such as an intellectual disability, learning disabilities, etc.) are not covered under the effective communication section of the ADA but can request auxiliary aids or alternative formats as reasonable modifications.
Examples of Auxiliary Aids and Alternative Formats:
- Sign language interpreter
- Computer aided real-time transcription (CART)
- Assisting listening devices (FM and loop systems)
- Large print
- Computer disk
- Picture menu
Abuse is someone hurting or humiliating you. It can be physical (hitting, pinching, slapping), verbal (name-calling, put-downs, sarcasm), or emotional (being made to feel worthless, inferior, afraid). Getting yelled at or punished because of your disability is also abuse. It may be abuse if someone is making negative comments about your disability. Abuse includes withholding food, clothing, medical care, and not allowing you to use the bathroom. Denying you the use of your wheelchair, crutches, braces, or communication device as punishment is abuse.
The Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Law protects people with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 59 who, because of their disabilities, must rely on others to meet their dailiy living needs. If you suspect that a disabled person is being abused by his or her caretaker — or if you are being abused — contact the Disabled Person’s Protection Commission (DPPC). Abuse of people under the age of 18 must be reported to the Department of Social Services (DSS). The phone numbers are at the back of this guidebook.
Mandated reporters are people who are required to report suspicions of abuse. They include doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, day care workers, and human service workers. Once a report is filed, the agency in charge will investigate and take any necessary action.
When a person commits a crime against another person because of the victim’s disability, race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation, it is a hate crime. Hate crimes can be in the form of physical attacks, threats, intimidation, or damage to property or belongings.
When someone’s behavior makes your environment hostile, offensive, or intimidating, you are being harassed. Harassment may include degrading or insulting statements or writings, graffiti, slogans, or other visual displays.
Hate crimes and harassment are against the law in Massachusetts! Call the Attorney General’s office at (617) 727-2200 (voice) or (617) 727-4765 TTY.
If you are the victim of a hate crime or harassment, notify the police. You may also contact your local district attorney, the Attorney General’s office, and the Department of Social Services. If you are the victim of a hate crime or harassment in school, you should notify school officials and report the incident to the police. Tell your parents. Tell an adult that you trust. You have the right to be safe in you school and community.
Students with disabilities have specific rights regarding education under several laws. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA require that students with disabilities receive services in the least restrictive setting. Both laws require schools, including colleges, provide reasonable accommodations.
As a student with a disability, you are also protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law. Chapter 766, the Massachusetts special education law, was changed in the year 2000 but you may still hear it referred to as Chapter 766 or just as the Massachusetts special education law. Both the state and federal education laws require a team to create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for you which addresses your educational needs and the services you require.
The team decides on goals and objectives and determines what services you need. The team also considers whether or not you need assistive technology to reach your goals and objectives. Assistive technology can be low-tech (such as a pencil grip) or high-tech (such as a voice recognition computer). Your parents can accept or reject the entire IEP or portions of it. Members of the team include your parents or guardians, teachers, speech therapists or other service providers, school psychologists, the director of special education, and anyone else that your parents request.
What can be in the IEP?
- Special transportation
- Modified discipline code
- Occupational, physical, or speech therapy
- Hearing aids
- Reduced homework
- Extended school year
If you are under 14 years old, you may attend the team meeting at the request of your parents. Once you turn 14, you must be invited to all of your team meetings and you can bring anyone you want with you. If you choose not to attend the meetings, the team must be sure that your preferences and interests are included. Your input is needed.
When you turn 18 years old, you have the right to accept or reject your IEP. Discuss it with your parents or guardians. Some schools may take advantage of your inexperience or lack of knowledge of your rights. Don’t give up your right to be educated!
Federal law requires your IEP team to include a transition plan when you turn 14 years old. The transition plan can include specific areas of study, vocational training, mobility training, and other services you need to prepare for when you’re no longer in school. The school must provide the services listed in your plan and your plan must be updated every year.
When you turn 16, your plan must connect you with the agencies (such as the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission or the Department of Developmental Services) whose services you will need when you are out of school.
According to the Massachusetts special education law, if you will need services from a state agency when you’re out of school, the school must make a referral to the Bureau of Transitional Planning (BTP). The referral must be made two years before you either graduate or turn 22.
Chapter 688 (also know as Massachusetts Transitional Planning Services — Turning 22) is a law that provides for planning the services you will need when you’re out of school. If you’re eligible, a transition team is assembled and an Individual Transition Plan (ITP) is created. The plan has to be approved by the Department of Education (DOE), the Executive Office of Human Services (EOHS), any other agencies involved and you or your guardians.
Members of the team include the members of the IEP team and the agency you need services from. The most important member of the team is you. It’s your life that is being planned. You need to be there to be sure your wishes are included.
Any services to be provided while you are still in school will be paid for by the school. When you’re no longer in school the appropriate agency will pick up the cost if there’s money available. It’s crucial to plan ahead because if you don’t, you may not get the services you need even if the agencies have enough money.
Colleges cannot refuse to admit you because of your disability. You are entitled to participate in all courses and activities. You can live on or off campus as other students can. Courses in inaccessible rooms must be relocated if you have a mobility disability that prevents you from getting to them.
Your rights in college are different from your rights in elementary, middle and high school. Colleges don’t write IEPs. You won’t have a one-on-one aide like you may have had in high school. The teacher won’t modify your work for you. Colleges are not required to provide you with personal nursing care or assist you in the bathroom.
Colleges must provide reasonable accommodations at no cost to you. For example, if you’re deaf, you may need an interpreter. If you have cerebral palsy, you may need a note taker. If you have a learning disability, you may need extra time to complete your work or you may need materials on tape. If you have low vision, you may need help filling out financial aid forms. Service animals are allowed in classrooms and in dorms. Assistive technology such as an FM system must be provided in class if needed.
For more information on your rights as a college student, read the Americans with Disabilities Act Titles II and III and Effective Communication sections of this guidebook or call CORD at (508) 775-8300.
The Massachusetts Handicap Plate and Placard Law entitles holders to park in accessible spaces. A placard can be used in different vehicles and a HP plate is issued to a specific vehicle which must be owned by the person with the disability. Remember, only you can use your plate or placard. Allowing others to use it can result in the plate or placard being revoked. It also denies an accessible parking space to someone who needs it. HP plates and placards are issued by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The Massachusetts Gas Station Law states that gas stations with both self-service and full-service pumps must pump your gas at the self-service pumps if you have an HP plate or placard and you can’t be charged the higher full-services price. Signs explaining this service must be posted at the pumps. Exceptions include self-service only stations with only one employee and convenience stores with self-service pumps.
Advocating is fighting for your rights of for the rights of others. The following suggestions can help you succeed, but they’re just suggestions, not rules.
- Ask for what you need. If the person you ask can’t help you, find out who can and then ask that person.
- If you’re told “No,” don’t back down. Make a plan of action. Focus on your needs and your rights. Be persistent.
- Put your request in writing. This starts a paper trail. Keep a journal and write down the following information:
- Date and time of each contact
- Who you talked to
- What was said
- Save copies of any letters sent and received
- Will advocating for your rights be easy? Probably not, but it gets easier as you get more experience.
- What if you’re told that you should be happy for what you’re being offered? Respond that equal access is a right, not a gift or a favor.
- Will you be called a troublemaker? Probably. Our society likes children and teenagers to be obedient. You should remain calm. You have a better chance of getting what you need if you calmly state your request and point out that it’s the law.
- What should you do if you run into a roadblock? Get support from your family, friends, or an advocacy organization. There are several organizations listed at the end of this guide.
Cape Organization for Rights of the Disabled (CORD)
(508) 775-8300 (voice/TTY)
1-800-541-0282 (voice/TTY) — MA only
MA Office on Disability
Disability Law Center (DLC)
Federation for Children with Special Needs
MA Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD)
(617) 727-3990 (voice)
(617) 720-6054 (TTY)
MA Office of the Attorney General
(617) 727-2200 (voice)
(617) 727-4765 (TTY)
MA Advocacy Center
(617) 357-8431 (voice)
MA Architectural Access Board (AAB)
Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC)
Department of Children & Families (DCF)
Department of Justice Info Line
Housing and Urban Development Housing Discrimination Hotline
Job Accommodations Network
If you need help and CANNOT speak FIRST dial 9-1-1 then press the appropriate number to get the help you need:
- If you need the police, Press 1
- If you need the fire department, Press 2
- If you need an ambulance, Press 3
Available only from touch-tone telephones in Massachusetts.