Family Support

Disabilities and the Law

In many areas in the law, people with disabilities have special protections and rights. Understanding the laws, rights and procedures can be very complicated.  Read on for helpful information and resources. 

Early Intervention and Education

Children with developmental delays or disabilities -- or those who are at risk for developmental delay or disabilities -- are eligible for early intervention and childhood education supports and services beginning at birth and continuing until age 21.

For detailed information, see the Early Intervention and Developmental Supports and Education sections of this Guide.

Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is a federal law that makes it possible for families to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs in the event of a serious medical situation.

The law applies to companies that have at least 50 full-time employees, and guarantees that an employee on leave will be able to return to his or her job - or a comparable one.

More information

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is intended to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability. The statute comes in five Titles:

  1. Title I applies to employers with at least 15 employees and is implemented by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission - 800-669-3362

  2. Title II applies to the programs, services and activities of public entities  (i.e., departments and agencies of state and local governments). It is implemented by the Department of Justice - 800-514-0301

  3. Title III applies to public accommodations (i.e. private entities open to the public such as retailers, office buildings, warehouses and factories). It is implemented by the Department of Justice,, 800-514-0301

  4. Title IV applies to telecommunications services for people with speech or hearing impairments.

  5. Title V covers “everything else.”

Additional information about the Americans with Disabilities Act and its application is available from the following federal agencies:

Resource Contact Information

U.S. Department of Transportation
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal financial assistance. Many “private” entities, including private schools, receive some form of federal assistance.

Other Anti-Discrimination Laws

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and local anti-discrimination ordinances may also provide legal protection against disability discrimination.
The federal Architectural Barriers Act requires access to facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds. The Access Board develops and maintains accessibility guidelines under this law. These guidelines serve as the basis for the standards used to enforce the law.

Four federal agencies are responsible for these standards: the Department of Defense, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Postal Service. Complaints about  violation of the ABA are filed through the Access Board - 800-872-2253, TTY 800-993-2822

The Fair Housing Act, or Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, protects the buyer/renter of a dwelling from seller/landlord discrimination. Its primary prohibition makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person's inclusion in a protected class, including disability.

Laws Governing Public Benefits Programs

See the Medical Insurance and Public Benefits section for explanations of public benefits and the laws governing them.

Estate Planning and Long Term Care

Every person 18 and older, regardless of disability, is presumed by the law to have “capacity – that is, able to make decisions, manage their own personal and financial affairs, and provide for their own health and safety.

An adult may be determined to be “incapacitated” only by a court upon the showing of clear evidence. This means that upon attaining age 18, in most cases, individuals with disabilities acquire all of the rights of every other adult.

However, many individuals with disabilities will require lifelong support and assistance with their personal affairs. Some of the legal tools used to assist individuals with decision-making and financial planning may include:

  • General Power of Attorney
  • Advanced Medical Directives and Living Wills
  • Multiple Party bank accounts
  • Supplemental Needs Trusts

If all possible supports are insufficient, a guardianship may be necessary to protect the individual from being taken advantage of by others. 

The Pennsylvania Guardianship Statute defines an incapacitated person as:

“an adult whose ability to receive and evaluate information effectively and communicate decisions in any way is impaired to such a significant extent that he is partially or totally unable to manage his financial resources or to meet essential requirements for his physical health and safety. 

In Pennsylvania, a guardianship may be limited in scope or duration, and may be over the estate of the person or over the person himself.”

Financial Planning
Some of the financial questions which must be addressed in planning for the future of a disabled person include:

  • How can my child receive income through my will, insurance policy or other sources without jeopardizing public benefits?
  • Do I have to “disinherit” my child in order for him/her to continue to receive public benefits?
  • How can I assure that my son or daughter will have the help and support he/she needs to lead a decent quality of life when I am no longer alive?

These are complicated questions and can be addressed by an estate planning attorney who drafts a careful, individualized plan for your family.  For many families, it will involve drafting a Supplemental Needs Trust so that friends and family can give money to your child without jeopardizing governmental benefits.

Estate Planning Resources

Resource Contact Information

The Family Trust
A non-profit corporation whose mission is to  implement family goals and services for individuals with disabilities upon the death of caretakers.  Clients receive assistance in fulfilling pre-established living plans, handling personal finances, estate planning, advocacy, and recommendations of attorneys/financial planners.
Allegheny County Courts
Guardianship Department
CONNECT Information Service
The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania
Information and resources on estate planning, guardianships and powers of attorneys.  May provide individual legal representation or make referrals to private attorneys specializing in disability issues.
Passavant Memorial Homes
The Life Enrichment Trust
Non-profit financial planning service designed to support the needs of families caring for individuals with disabilities.

Finding an Attorney and/or Advocate

A number of organizations offer legal information or can provide appropriate referrals.

Resource Contact Information

ABC Consulting Services
ACHIEVA Education Advoacy
Allegheny County Bar Association
Lawyer Referral Service
City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities
Client Assistance Program
Provides legal advice and conflict resolution for people with disabilities who are involved with programs that receive funding under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (e.g., Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Blindness and Visual Services, Supplemental Employment Program, and Centers for Independent Living).
Community Care Behavioral Health Organization
Helps families resolve conflicts and problems involving Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
Connect Early Intervention Services
Offers legal information and advocacy for families with children who receive Early Intervention and Special Education services.
Disability Rights Network PA
Protects and advocates for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities. Includes Education Law Center PA, Pittsburgh Office
Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) of America
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
Provides educational and legal advocacy, and recommends action on pending legislation that may affect children with learning disabilities and their families.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Southwestern PA
Neighborhood Legal Services
One to One Citizen Advocacy
Promotes the protection and advocacy of people with special needs. Matches people with volunteers who act as helpers and companions.
Parent Education and Leadership (PEAL) Center
Workshops and Annual Conference on Inclusion
Pennsylvania Health Law Project
Provides assistance to people who need help obtaining health services.
The President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities
Job Accommodation Network (JAN)

Answers questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act, and accommodations for employees and job-seekers with disabilities.