The Civil Rights Act and the ADA

This activity asks students to read and compare the language of selected civil rights legislation.
Grade Level


  • Understand how a democratic society debates issues and mediates between individual or group rights and the common good
  • Consider the significance of the Constitution in today's society
  • Reflect on the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution (e.g., how citizenship was included, why the clauses of "equal protection of the laws" and "due process" were included) and why they necessitated further legislation in the 20th century



By tracing the changes in language (from "handicapped" to "people with disabilities," for example) and the necessity of restating and reinforcing Constitutional rights, the analysis likewise asks them to think about prejudice, stigma and fundamental rights and freedoms.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act is almost 25 years old, the Voting Rights Act is almost 50 years old this year. One interesting approach to studying the development of these laws is to begin with the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which theoretically should have guaranteed the rights outlined in legislation a century later.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, ratified by Lyndon B. Johnson after television news coverage of the Selma to Montgomery March drew nationwide attention to the African American struggle, actually looks very much like the Civil Rights Act passed one year earlier. The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), likewise, rewrites and expands the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

Find the full text for all documents (except the ADA).



  • Explain to students that they are going to compare and contrast the language in two critical pieces of federal legislation.
  • Distribute copies of the first pages of the Civil Rights Act and ADA.
  • Use the handout to guide discussion that compares and contrasts the two documents.