The Americans with Disabilities Act and Serving System-Involved Youth

by LaWanda Cook, PhD CRC

What are Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities?

Developmental disabilities are conditions that occur before age 22 and result in significant lifetime impairment in areas such as self-care, learning, mobility, self-direction, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. Examples include cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and autism. People with developmental disabilities sometimes have intellectual limitations.

Intellectual disability is a type of developmental disability that occurs prior to age 18, and is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning as well as limitations in conceptual, social, and practical skills. According to the Arc, the vast majority of people with intellectual disability “fall into the lower support needs category.” In some cases, a person’s limitations may not be immediately evident.

Intellectual disability and other developmental disabilities are not the same as mental health conditions. However, about 34% of people with I/DD have a “dual diagnosis,” meaning that they also have a mental health disability.

How does the ADA Apply to Youth with These Disabilities?

Any of these types of disabilities can require that professionals make some adjustments when working with system-involved youth. And, youth with any or all of these conditions have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA is a comprehensive disability rights law which applies to employers, businesses, and municipalities. Employment is addressed in Title I of the Act. Private businesses that serve the public are covered in Title III. And, programs run by state or local municipalities, including private providers they contract with to operate programs on behalf of the municipality, are covered by Title II of the ADA.

Probation programs, courts, detention facilities, schools, and other entities have responsibilities under the ADA. Broadly stated, these entities must:

  • Have non-discriminatory eligibility requirements, meaning they cannot discriminate on the basis of disability when determining who can participate in programs and services, as long as the person meets any legitimate eligibility criteria required for all participants.
  • Provide reasonable modification to enable access to programs and services. These include changes in a policy, practice or procedure that enable equal access and opportunity. Reasonable modifications are changes that do not fundamentally alter a service, program, or activity for other participants. Examples include filling out forms for the person, allowing more time to complete a task, and offering alternative ways to complete assignments or demonstrate understanding. An important practice that may be a modification from the typical way a program or office does business is the use of “plain language”. This means asking simple, singular questions, and using concrete language and examples rather than abstract terms and metaphors. This applies for both written and verbal communication.
  • Provide effective communication for people with vision, hearing, or speech disabilities. This may require provision of auxiliary aids and services such as large print materials, or electronic documents for someone with a visual disability, or providing an appropriate, qualified interpreter for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or are deaf-blind.
  • Place inmates and detainees in the most integrated setting, appropriate for their specific needs. For example, it is inconsistent with the ADA to place inmates and detainees in inappropriate security classifications because no accessible beds or cells are available, or in medical areas unless they are actually receiving medical care.

These are some of the ways that the ADA applies to the work of system professionals. And, it is always okay to go beyond the requirements of the law!

It's important that system professionals are aware of the rights of people with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities, and that they honor these rights when working with youth. Further, they can play a key role in helping young people to understand their rights and how they apply in employment, and other settings and situations.

Learn More

There are 10 ADA Centers throughout the country that provide training and technical assistance to help employers, businesses, municipalities, people with disabilities, and others understand their rights and responsibilities under the law. In the state of New York, these services are provided by The Northeast ADA Center

The resources below specifically address the rights of system-involved people.

The Y-ReCONNECTS website has more information about things to consider when engaging with youth, such as being mindful that behaviors that might be quickly assessed as “insubordination” or “disrespect for authority” may in fact be due to an intellectual, developmental and/or other disability. Video clips and downloadable print materials are available at

Developmental disabilities are conditions that occur before age 22 and result in significant lifetime impairment.