Disability rights in government services

MOD can help people understand government obligations and how to address obstacles to participation in programs

There are federal and state laws to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in government programs, services, and facilities. These laws aim to remove barriers, promote inclusion, and provide effective communication and equal opportunity to participate. This page outlines the civil rights obligations for government entities and ways to address obstacles to participation in government programs.

Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD) provides disability rights information to both users of government services and to government staff:

  • If a member of the public is facing a barrier with a government program, and isn’t sure how to evaluate or address the situation, they can contact MOD for a consultation.
  • MOD can offer guidance to municipalities and state agencies on their general obligations or how to evaluate a request they have received.

Notes: Although the laws on this page apply to public schools, there are additional applicable laws relating to disability rights in education (see Disability rights in education). The disability rights obligations related to government employment situations are addressed in Disability rights in employment.

Table of Contents

Relevant laws

The federal and state civil rights laws aim to promote inclusion and ensure equal opportunity to participate for people with disabilities. Federal, state and local government agencies as well as entities receiving public funding are all required to refrain from discrimination on the basis of disability.

Federal laws

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): requires state and local governments to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities. State and local governments can’t deny people with disabilities the chance to participate or make them participate in a separate program only for people with disabilities.

Examples of state and local government entities covered by the ADA include: state courts, police departments, state and local parks, grade schools, town meetings, public libraries, state benefit programs, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, public hospitals and nursing homes.

Note that Title II of the ADA does not cover federal agencies.

Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act: prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by organizations receiving federal funds, including federal, state and local agencies. Some entities (such as state and local agencies that receive federal funds) will be covered by both Section 504 and the ADA. In these situations, we normally look to the ADA because it may provide a higher level of protection than Section 504.

Examples of entities covered by both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA include: public schools, federally funded municipal projects, and MassHealth. Federal agencies, on the other hand, are only covered by Section 504. Examples of entities covered by the Rehabilitation Act but not the ADA include: Post Offices, the Social Security Administration, National Parks, the Veteran Administration, and private schools that receive federal funding.

State laws

Massachusetts General Law (MGL) Chapter 272, Section 92A and Section 98: Discrimination in places of public accommodation based on disability is prohibited. A public accommodation is any place that is open to the general public. The law prohibits discrimination in terms of building access and also in terms of the programs or services offered.

521 Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR): Architectural Access Board regulations specify building codes to ensure basic physical accessibility of newly constructed or renovated buildings. For more information on this topic, see Physical accessibility.

Massachusetts Open Meeting Law  (OML) requires that most meetings of public bodies be held in public, and it establishes rules that public bodies must follow in the creation and maintenance of records relating to those meetings. OML holds public bodies to the same state and federal laws that govern accessibility for persons with disabilities including the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and state constitutional provisions. OML requires public bodies to make their meetings accessible and to furnish auxiliary aids.

Further legal information

Laws on disability rights in public spaces and government services lists state and federal laws, regulations, cases, and useful references.

Federal program accessibility and nondiscrimination

The ADA does not apply to federal agencies. Discrimination on the basis of disability in federal programs and activities is covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This guidance will not go into detail about federal programs.

Needs for accommodations or allegations of disability discrimination would be addressed within the applicable federal agency. To address an obstacle or possible discrimination, contact the department that handles Section 504 matters within the federal agency. Names of such departments will vary - to identify the right place you can:

Main obligations and concepts under the ADA Title II (state and local government)

Coverage: when does ADA Title II apply?

Title II of the ADA applies to state and local government and the activities, services, and programs they offer or fund.

Examples of state government:

  • State colleges/universities
  • State parks
  • The Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV)
  • State legislative offices
  • State courts

Examples of local government:

  • Municipal (town or city) government services, such as: police, public K-12 schools, voting, libraries
  • County or regional services, such as: county courts, Aging Services Access Points

Basic obligations

State and local government:

  • Must not deny services or benefits on basis of disability
  • Must provide equal opportunity to participate and benefit. This includes providing:
    • Effective communication
    • Physical access
  • Must not use eligibility criteria that screen out people with disabilities
  • Must not make unnecessary inquiries relating to disability: they should only ask for the information they need
  • Must grant reasonable modifications to policies when requested
  • Must perform a self-evaluation of how well their programs are compliant with the ADA.

In addition, most state and local governments (any with 50+ employees) must meet the five administrative requirements:

  • Appoint a designated compliance person (usually known as the ADA Coordinator)
  • Adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of complaints
  • Maintain the self-evaluation on file and make it available for public inspection for three years.
  • Develop a transition plan for how non-compliance issues will be addressed.

Government entities are not required to provide personal devices, such as wheelchairs, or provide services of a personal nature (such as help toileting) unless they provide such services for everyone.

Program access

State and local government must ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from services, programs, and activities because they are inaccessible. They are not required to make every facility accessible, but when viewed as a whole, the services, programs, and activities of a state and local government must be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. There are several ways to achieve program accessibility:

  • Altering existing facilities to remove barriers to access
  • Creating new accessible facilities
  • Offering services at an alternative site (e.g. relocating a service to an accessible facility, or to a first floor)
  • Acquiring equipment
  • Providing aides.

They should always prioritize providing services and programs in the most integrated setting.

In general, government staff should be aware of the accessibility of their existing facilities (e.g. which venues have access without steps, which have a sound system) and programs, and what equipment and vendors they can use to provide effective communication and access when needed, e.g. American Sign Language interpreters, accessible transportation providers.

All significant renovations and new construction must follow the accessibility regulations. See Physical accessibility requirements.

State and local government:

  • Are not required to take any action that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the service, program, or activity or an undue financial and administrative burdens. However, public entities must attempt to find another way to accommodate the person with a disability so that they can receive the benefits or services.
  • Must ensure that digital offerings (e.g. town website, any web-based systems to collect fees or taxes), be accessible to people with disabilities. See Guidance on the ADA and web accessibility and foundational principles to help make electronic documents accessible.

Meetings that are open the public must be held in accessible locations and meet effective communication needs. In general, staff should be aware of their existing facilities and programs, which are accessible, where they have sound systems, vendors such as ASL, CART, accessible transportation.

Town Meetings also must be accessible to people with disabilities, and towns must make reasonable accommodations to allow people with disabilities to meaningfully participate. For more information see MOD’s memo on Reasonable accommodations at Town Meetings.

Most state and local government entities are required to create a transition plan detailing how they plan to work towards compliance with the ADA, so the expectation is that they will prioritize improving the accessibility of their most used areas first but will gradually work towards all areas being as fully accessible as it is feasible to make them.


Public entities may not provide services or benefits to individuals with disabilities through programs that are separate or different, unless the separate programs are necessary to ensure that the benefits and services are equally effective.

Even when separate programs are permitted, an individual with a disability still has the right to choose to participate in the integrated program. For example, it would not be a violation for a city to offer recreational programs specially designed for children with mobility disabilities, but it would be a violation if the city refused to allow children with disabilities to participate in its other recreational programs.

State and local governments may not require an individual with a disability to accept an accommodation or benefit if the individual chooses not to accept it.

Effective communication

State and local governments must ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities.

Where necessary to ensure that communications with individuals with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities are as effective as communications with others, the public entity must provide appropriate auxiliary aids. "Auxiliary aids" include such services or devices as qualified interpreters, assistive listening headsets, television captioning and decoders, telecommunications devices for deaf persons (TDD's), videotext displays, readers, taped texts, Brailled materials, and large print materials.

A public entity may not charge an individual with a disability for the use of an auxiliary aid and generally should not ask for documentation from a medical provider to verify the need for the requested communication.

For more information, see Effective communication.

Reasonable accommodation/modification

State and local government must make "reasonable modifications" to their usual ways of doing things when necessary to accommodate people who have disabilities. For example, a person who has a cognitive disability may need assistance in completing an application for public benefits. ADA Title II calls this “reasonable modification” but people commonly call it “reasonable accommodation.” You don’t need to use a specific phrase, so either term is fine to use.

The reasonable modification process typically involves 3 steps:

  1. request from an individual to the government entity, explaining:
    1. They are a person with a disability
    2. The obstacle they are facing due to particular disability-related limitations
    3. What they are requesting the entity do that would be effective in removing the obstacle so that they can equally participate.
  2. The analysis, where the government entity evaluates the request and may suggest or discuss various possible options with the individual. In some cases, the entity may ask for documentation from a medical provider to verify the limitations and need for the requested modification.
  3. decision, which could be:
    • The reasonable accommodation is granted as requested.
    • A reasonable accommodation is granted that is different from what was requested.
    • The reasonable accommodation is denied.

Depending on the circumstances, this might be a 2-minute conversation or several interactions over a couple of weeks.

Denial of requests

Government entities do not have to grant reasonable modification requests that:

  • Are not needed because of a disability
  • Require a fundamental alteration to their operations
  • Would place an undue burden on them
  • Would be unsafe.

Fundamental alteration

A "fundamental alteration" is a change that is so significant that it alters the essential nature of the entity’s programs or services. For example, a school lunch program would not be required to provide after-school meals to students with disabilities, if it does not do so for students without disabilities.

Undue burden

An undue financial or administrative burden means a significant expense or difficulty. Whether something is a significant difficulty or expense will vary from government to government and may vary from year to year. Keep in mind that when determining whether an expense would be unduly burdensome, courts look to the budget of that entire level of government (e.g. the state budget for that fiscal year) rather than the budget of the individual agency or program.

How to address an obstacle (state and local government)

What is the issue?

Identify what the obstacle is that you are facing and which of the obligations your issue falls under:

  • Are you being denied a service because you have a disability, have a record of a disability, or are regarded as having a disability?
  • Is there an unnecessary eligibility criterion that is preventing you from participating? 
  • Are you unable to equally access or participate in a program, service or activity due to a barrier (e.g. you can’t participate in a meeting without an auxiliary aid, or the meeting room is not accessible)
  • Is there a policy or practice that prevents you from having the same experience as other members of the public 

Although you’re not required to use specific terminology to describe your concerns, it can be helpful to reference which obligation is the issue in your discussion with the entity.

What do you need?

Once you have identified the obstacle, you work out what to ask the agency or city/town to do in response.

  • Identify options: There may be a number of options you could ask for. It is a good idea to evaluate which options meet your needs and which the entity is likely to be able to provide without fundamental alteration or undue hardship.
  • Compose your explanation: It's generally a good idea for your explanation to include: 
    1. That you are a person with a disability
    2. What you are trying to do: what facility, program or service are you trying to access or participate in?
    3. The obstacle you are facing due to particular disability-related limitations
    4. What you are asking the entity to do that would be effective in removing the obstacle so that you can equally participate.
  • In writing: While you are not obligated to make your request in writing, there are several good reasons for choosing this option over a verbal explanation. In addition to creating a record of when you made a request, it also ensures that the exact explanation that you provided can be shared with others instead of relying on one person to accurately repeat what it is that you are seeking. However, you can choose whatever communication method works for you, and for simple, common requests, a phone call can be fastest.

In most cases, it will not be necessary to produce medical documentation in support of requests. However, if you are requesting:

  • An accommodation where there is going to be ongoing or involved interactions,
  • A particularly complex or sensitive accommodation (e.g. requesting accommodations to take a state sponsored exam), or
  • An accommodation where there isn't a clear link between the limitation and the accommodation requested

then you should anticipate that the government entity may require a letter from a medical provider who treats you verifying that you have the disability-related limitations you have described and that the accommodation you have requested seems appropriate.

Who do I ask?

You can always ask the ADA Title II Coordinator for the municipality or agency, but there are multiple options:

  • Meetings: If you need auxiliary aids or physical access to participate in a meeting, the meeting notice should have instructions about how to make a request and the deadline for doing so.
  • Simple issues can sometimes be addressed with the department whose program you are interested in, so for those you can start by looking on their website or contacting the department directly.
  • If the issue is complex, it involves a systemic issue, you‘re not sure who to contact, or your direct contact with a department was not productive, you can contact the ADA Coordinator.

To find the contact details for the ADA Coordinator, search on the entity’s website or look up our records:

Be aware that the ADA Coordinator’s job is to ensure compliance on behalf of the agency or local government entity. In most cases, the ADA Coordinator is functioning as a general contact to ensure that the issue is addressed and reviewed by the proper contact in the agency or municipality. This individual may not be the ultimate decision maker.

Whether you begin by raising your issue with a staff member who answers the phone, a head of the applicable department, or the ADA Coordinator, it makes sense to ask them what is involved in evaluating your request and when you can expect a response.

Public entities are tasked with addressing disability related issues and grievances promptly. If not indicated in a written grievance procedure, an individual reaching out to a state agency or municipality to address an issue can request a response by a particular date.

What next?

After you have made your request:

  • They may pass you to someone else
  • If they need more information about your needs, or verification from a medical provider, they will ask you
  • They may agree to your request
  • They may offer an alternative option to meet your needs
  • They may deny your request. They are allowed to do this if granting the request would involve a safety issue, fundamental alteration, or undue burden. If they deny your request, ask for the reason why. This information is essential for you to work out whether there is a way forward.

If you disagree with a decision or what is being offered, explain your reasoning to the ADA Coordinator. You can also contact MOD to discuss the situation and your options. If your concerns are not addressed and your issue remains unresolved, you can file a complaint with the state or local government using their grievance procedure. The grievance procedure should indicate how complaints/issues will be addressed Grievance procedures must be publicly posted (website, bulletin board in main facilities).

Although entities with 50 or less employees (small towns) are not required to have a designated ADA Coordinator or to post a grievance procedure, they still have obligations to comply with the ADA. In such cases, concerns can be addressed with town government leadership.

If that does not resolve the matter, you can file an administrative discrimination complaint at an enforcement agency. (see Enforcement and recourse)

Specific scenarios: voting

The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Elections Division oversees voting and provides information on equal access for voters with disabilities.

Specific scenario: state courts

For accessibility in Massachusetts courts, the following links provide useful information about reasonable accommodations:

Enforcement and recourse

There are multiple avenues available for addressing an obstacle to equal access to or participation in state and local government programs, services and facilities.

The options for resolving a disability rights issue in government services are (in order of what is usually easiest first):

  • Informally check there is no misunderstanding/miscommunication: explain the issue to the ADA Coordinator, making sure you have clearly provided all information they may need and explaining why you believe the agency’s approach/response is problematic. It can help to do this in writing, and this will provide good evidence if you need to escalate the issue.
  • Use the grievance procedure. State agencies and municipalities with 50 or more employees must have a grievance procedure that explains how complaints/issues will be addressed. It should be publicly posted (usually on their website as well as a public noticeboard). If you can’t easily find the grievance procedure, ask the ADA Coordinator for it. you can file a complaint with the state or local government using their grievance procedure. The grievance procedure should indicate how complaints/issues will be addressed Grievance procedures must be publicly posted (website, bulletin board in main facilities).
  • Although entities with 50 or less employees (small towns) are not required to have a designated ADA Coordinator or to post a grievance procedure, they still have obligations to comply with the ADA. In such cases, concerns can be addressed with town government leadership.
  • File an administrative complaint at an enforcement agency. The remedies available under Title II of the ADA are the same as those provided under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. There are several federal agencies that enforce Title II of the ADA. You can file at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and they will pass your complaint along as appropriate. Filing an administrative complaint is free and does not require you to hire a lawyer, but if the complaint is investigated, the enforcement agency is neutral. Complaints need to be filed within 180 days of the date of the alleged discrimination. However, if you choose to follow the entity’s grievance procedures, any resulting delay may be considered good cause for extending the time allowed for filing a complaint. You can file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ either online (civilrights.justice.gov) or by phone on (202) 514-3847.
  • Private parties may bring lawsuits to enforce their rights under title II of the ADA.

For physical access issues, see Physical accessibility enforcement.

Further information and support

More detailed information

The ADA Title II primer has useful explanations and examples.

Common municipal ADA compliance problems describes the impact of common non-compliance issues and what municipalities are required to do.

The New England ADA Center Action Guide provides various resources to help government entities understand their ADA Title II obligations.

How MOD can help

Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD) provides consultations to both users of government services and to government staff on the disability-rights aspects of a specific situation:

  • If a member of the public is facing a barrier with a government program and isn’t sure how to evaluate or address the situation, they can contact MOD for a consultation.
  • MOD can offer guidance to municipalities and state agencies on their general obligations and how to evaluate a request they have received.

For more information on MOD’s ongoing supports and training to staff in state and local government:

If after reading the information on this page, you have disability rights questions about a situation, you can request a consultation using MOD's contact form. If you are facing an obstacle to participation, please let us know:

  • What you are trying to do
  • What obstacle you are facing to equal participation
  • Whether you have requested a reasonable accommodation, and if so, what the response was

Note that we are not staffed to handle emergencies. We aim to respond within a week but response times vary by topic.

Reviewing the information on this page before contacting us helps us serve as many people as possible.

Last updated: December 21, 2023

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