Does the Americans With Disabilities Act Protect Prisoners?

An important basis for many prisoner rights is the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). This federal law requires institutions, like as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, to ensure that disabled prisoners have access to the same services and programs as everyone else. One of the key benefits of the ADA is that you can sue the government and government and employees without being blocked by sovereign immunity. This is important, because in the many cases where these rights are disregarded, the ADA permits disabled prisoners to sue the Commonwealth and its employees.  

Title II of the ADA states that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such [public] entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. To establish a claim for relief under the ADA, a person must prove that (1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) he was subject to discrimination by a public entity; and (3) such discrimination was “by reason of” his disability. Bowers v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 475 F.3d 524 (3d Cir. 2007)

The United States Supreme Court has explained that under the ADA, a disabled prisoner must be permitted to participate in any of the services being offered at the prison. “Modern prisons provide inmates with many recreational ‘activities,’ medical ‘services,’ and educational and vocational ‘programs’ all of which at least theoretically ‘benefit’ the prisoners (and any of which disabled prisoners could be 'excluded from participation in.’)” Block v. Rutherford, 468 U.S. 576 (1984). In other words, any service or program which the prison provides to the general prison population, must also be provided to an disabled person. 

The accommodation to which a prisoner may be entitled include the following:

  • Wheelchairs, crutches, or braces; 

  • Additional time to complete certain activities; 

  • Access to handicapped accessible restroom facilities; 

  • Accommodations for providing urine samples for drug tests; 

  • Getting bottom bunk privileges; and 

  • Limited time in solitary confinement for people with mental health disabilities. 

Additionally, Deaf and Hearing Impaired prisoners are entitled to accommodations such as interpreters at hearings, special counseling, and access to educational and vocational programs. However, the prison officials may to fight efforts to obtain these services and accommodations. The following have been accepted by courts as justifiable reasons not to provide accommodations: 

  • The accommodation would cause “undue financial or administrative burdens”; 

  • The accommodation would require a “fundamental alteration” in the program being offered; or

  • The accommodation would pose “significant health or safety risks” to others.

The ADA has defined a “qualified individual” (a disabled person who is covered by the law) as anyone with a physical or mental impairment which “substantially limits” one of their “major bodily functions.”  42 U.S.C. § 12102. A person suffers a substantial limitation on a major life activity if that person is “significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which [he] can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner, or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity.” Kelly v. Drexel Univ., 94 F.3d 102, 105 (3d Cir. 1996)

If you or someone you know has been denied access to programs or services while incarcerated, please contact the Mizner Law Firm at or call 814.454.3889 to learn how we may be able to assist you.