Federal Legislation for People with Disabilities and their Families (as of Nov 2008)


Millions of Americans rely on federal and state laws to protect their civil rights and to promote economic and social participation in their local communities. However, people with disabilities and their families have not always benefited from such laws since the history of legislation that affects their lives more often reflect patterns of exclusion, segregation and denial of services and supports. In recent decades, Congress has begun to change that pattern.

Robert “Bobby” Silverstein wrote a comprehensive introduction to disability policy Emerging Disability Policy Framework: A Guidepost for Analyzing Public Policy that waspublished by the Iowa Law Review in August2000. The article was prepared for different audiences of individuals who want to design, implement or assess disability-related programs and policies. It provides essential information for policymakers, self advocates and their families and professional advocates who want to promote programs and policies that are responsive to individuals with disabilities. The article is attached here for readers to use.


Silverstein arranges current laws affecting people with disabilities into five general categories: civil rights statutes; entitlement programs; discretionary grant-in-aid programs (which can be either formula or competitive grants); regulatory statutes; and miscellaneous provisions.  He recognizes that some laws fall into more than one category such as IDEA which is both a civil rights statute and grant-in-aid program. The significance of this framework is that it provides a very useful way for people interested in disability policy to consider the most appropriate type of legislation that can address issues of concern for people with disabilities and their families. 

Organization of Section

The material that explains disability policy legislation appears in three parts.


Part I reviews and describes the most significant pieces of legislation and programs that they authorize. Each law is labeled using the five categories created by Silverstein: civil rights statute; entitlement program; discretionary grant-in-aid program: formula and competitive grant; regulatory statute; or miscellaneous (including appropriations, tax legislation and loans).  There are many laws that affect the daily lives of people with disabilities and their families and their access to services and supports that allow them to work or attend school and participate fully in community life. However, to provide an introduction to disability policy, we selected the following ones (in alphabetical order) considered the most significant for people with disabilities:

  1. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

  2. Developmental Disabilities Assistance & Bill of Rights Act (DD Act)

  3. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

  4. Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act)

  5. Social Security Act

  6. Ticket to Work & Work Incentives Improvement Act (TWWIIA)

  7. Workforce Investment Act (WIA)


Part II lists relevant programs that provide critical services and supports for individuals with disabilities and their families. We organized these programs by areas associated with daily life to guide readers who are new to the field of disability policy. A short overview and its authorizing legislation are provided for each program. Please note that the listed programs are more extensive than the ones referenced in Part I.  We use the following topics to help readers quickly find legislation that may be of greatest interest to them:   

  1. Civil Rights

  2. Education

  3. Economic Security

  4. Employment and Training

  5. Emergency Preparedness

  6. Family Support

  7. Health

  8. Housing

  9. Long Term Services and Supports 

  10. Technology and Telecommunications

  11. Transportation

  12. Voting

Readers should also see Making Federal Policy for information regarding the federal authorization and appropriation process.