The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Broader than any disability law that came before it, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act made it illegal for the federal government, federal contractors, and any entity receiving federal financial assistance to discriminate on the basis of disability. Section 504 obligates state and local governments to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to any programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance.
Specifically, 34 C.F.R.§104 states:
"No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The ADA is built upon the foundation laid by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It uses as its model Section 504's definition of disability and then goes further. While Section 504 applies only to entities receiving federal financial assistance, the ADA covers all state and local governments, including those that receive no federal financial assistance. The ADA also applies to private businesses that meet the ADA’s definition of “public accommodation” (restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, and doctors’ offices are just a few examples), commercial facilities (such as office buildings, factories, and warehouses), and many private employers.
While the ADA has five separate titles, Title II is the section specifically applicable to “public entities” (state and local governments) and the programs, services, and activities they deliver.
Under the ADA:
An individual is considered to have a "disability" if s/he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having such impairment. Persons discriminated against because they have a known association or relationship with an individual with a disability are also protected.