Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act provides groundbreaking civil rights promises and protections to the disabled community, reaching far and wide across areas such as education, employment, transportation and public life. Nearly 20 years later, in 2009, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act significantly modernized the legal definitions of disability to further protect the civil rights of disabled U.S. citizens.
Just as the amended act works side-by-side with the ADA, Florida is not only subject to the protective provisions laid out by federal law, but the panhandle enhances these rights and protections with its own collection of laws on the state level. Florida disability law under the Florida Statutes applies to people who have a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits at least one major life activity, where a major life activity can include sensory functions, working, walking, basic physical tasks and caring for oneself. Luckily, Florida legislation seeks to help out with a little care of its own.
In Florida, ADA guidelines that work alongside the Florida Civil Rights Act – detailed in the Florida Statutes, Section 760.01 – prohibit employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of any handicap. These laws apply to both private and public employers with at least 15 employees, and they protect from disability-based discrimination on both the county and municipal level. If a Floridian job applicant is the most competent person available to perform the services required by the job in question, Section 112.042 of the Florida Statutes insists that he or she won't be discriminated against for thier disabilities, whether psychical or mental.
Employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodation for handicapped hires, by both Florida law and the federal ADA. These accommodations include (but aren't limited to) tweaks to work rules, job duties or the physical configuration of the workspace and work structure or routine. Although it's the legal duty of the employer to provide these sorts of reasonable accommodations, it's the employee's responsibility to request them. Employers may seek exemption from such requests if incorporating the accommodations outsizes their ability or resources to an extent that it would cause the business undue hardship. Per Section 413.08 of the Florida Statutes, employers who discriminate against those with disabilities in the workforce may be faced with a misdemeanor of the second degree.
In the U.S., the federal Family and Medical Leave Act promises eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid work leave for certain health conditions, and this leave may be considered reasonable accommodation under the ADA. While some states tack additional leave laws onto the ADA, Florida does not, as of 2018.
Special Education Rights
Florida disability requirements don't just protect grown-ups – in 2013, the Sunshine State passed laws under the banner of Exceptional Student Education (Senate Bill 1108 and House Bill 465, from Senators Andy Gardiner and Representative Jason Broduer) granting crucial rights to those who require special education.
When Floridian parents of a child with special education needs meet with school officials, they have the legal right to bring along another adult of their choosing without the objection (or retaliation) of the school, making it easier to get the hands-on input of a professional such as an emotional specialist, physical therapist or speech-language pathologist. Likewise, parents have the right to send their child's private certified behavior analyst, applied behavior analyst, psychical or occupational therapist, speech language therapist, psychologist, or clinical social worker to observe and even collaborate with public school personnel, given reasonable planning with the teachers and principal.
Exceptional Student Education doesn't just give voice to professionals, it makes the state's Individualized Education Program more inclusive by requiring IEP teams to seek the consent of parents when choosing between putting their children on a special diploma track or receiving an education from a separate ESE center school. Similarly, parents must be informed of exactly how much money their local school district receives for ESE funding, per Florida Statute 1003.57(j), and they have the right to request an extraordinary exemption from specified tests on behalf of their children.
Housing and Accessibility Rights
If you're living with disabilities in the state of Florida, the federal legislation outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act provides a large swath of your housing and accessibility rights, although the Florida Statutes Section 413.08 can't be any more clear when it states that, "An individual with a disability is entitled to rent, lease, or purchase, as other members of the general public, any housing accommodations offered for rent, lease, or other compensation in this state, subject to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all persons."
Those who need ramps, railings, automatic doors or other accommodations to get into buildings can thank Title II of the ADA, which requires "public entities to make both new and existing housing facilities accessible to persons with disabilities," including public housing and even university campuses. Often exercised in tandem with these types of ADA rules, the federal Architectural Barriers Act requires buildings funded in whole or in part by the government to comply with legal accessibility standards for persons with disabilities, as detailed in the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.
On the state level, the Florida Mobile Home Act adds a helpful wrinkle to these nationwide guidelines. For those who need assistance moving their mobile homes, the Mobile Home Relocation Program provides financial help to displaced mobile homeowners. Though it may sound small, the program's importance cannot be exaggerated in a state with more than 828,000 mobile homes, according to 2017 data from the Manufactured Housing Institute.
Of course, protections and rights extend beyond homes and government-associated buildings. Section 413.08 of the Florida Statutes – entitled Employment and Related Services for Persons with Disabilities – clearly lays out requirements for accessibility in both personal housing accommodations and "public accommodation," the latter of which casts an impressively wide net. Florida law defines public accommodation as everything from an airplane to an amusement park, and – with some very wide-reaching language – requires that "an individual with a disability is entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges in all public accommodations."
Those same statutes also state that any person or corporation who inhibits or interferes with a disabled person's rights to enter or enjoy a public space commits a second-degree misdemeanor. In Florida, that's an offense very appropriately punishable by 30 hours of community service on behalf of an organization that serves the disabled community (though the court does have the right to choose another organization).
As for disability-oriented welfare programs, is there disability in the state of Florida? The answer is both "yes" and "no."
Compared to states like California, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey and New York – where state law requires employers to offer a short-term disability plan – the Everglade State falls short. If you're a Florida resident who doesn't have disability insurance through your employer, you'll have to rely on federal disability programs from the Social Security Administration, like Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income, to get benefits.
To be eligible for these federal assistance programs, your inability to work must affect you for at least one year. Social Security Disability caters to taxpayers with a qualifying work history while Supplemental Security Income lends a helping hand to those with less income and assets.
The ADA allows people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all public accommodations and transportation, but Florida enforces its own set of legal rules regarding service animals, too. Fortunately, disabled Floridians are entitled to whichever law offers them the strongest protections, be it state or federal, on a situational basis.
Florida law defines service animals as those trained to perform tasks or do work for anyone with intellectual, physical, sensory or psychiatric handicaps, which is pretty broadly in line with the ADA. However, Florida law covers only service dogs and miniature horses in terms of access to public accommodations. Those "public accommodations" extend to: hotels and public lodging; public transportation terminals and depots; restaurants and bars; sales and rental businesses; public gathering spaces; arts and entertainment facilities; gyms and recreational buildings or stadiums; zoos and parks; curated public displays such as libraries and museums; educational institutions and social service centers, among others. The Florida Statutes Section 413.08 requires service animals to wear a harness, leash or tether, unless the owner's disability or the animal's necessary tasks prohibit it, when in public. By the same law, public accommodations are not allowed to ask about "the nature or extent" of a person's handicap when he's accompanied by an assistance animal, and they can't impose fees on patrons for using them. When employing a service animal in your own home, the dog and mini-horse limit does not apply – you're free to use an adequately trained animal of your choosing.
Service animal law in Florida also prohibits property owners from discriminating against disabled tenants due to their service or assistance animals; those who rely on service animals at home are fully entitled to equal housing access in the state. Landlords in Florida can't demand extra payment for assistance animals, either. Just be mindful of your deposit – the law does state that you're liable for any damages your service animal causes to the property or people on it. The same goes for public damages.
Bad news for the Florida-born emotional support peacock, Dexter, who became internet-famous before his passing in 2018: Like federal law, Florida state law does not cover emotional support animals. That includes psychiatric service dogs as well as peacocks, no matter how fabulous.
On a related note, although public accommodations may not legally demand to see any sort of registration papers or licenses for service animals, anyone in the state of Florida who willfully misrepresents himself as being qualified to use a service animal is subject to a second-degree misdemeanor charge and 30 hours of public service for a disabled advocacy organization.
Disability Rights Advocates in Florida
A generous host of nonprofit organizations and initiatives strive to protect the civil rights of disabled Floridians and help them excel in public life, often by offering legal education resources and advocacy. Employment First Florida, for example, guides those with intellectual and developmental disabilities into career opportunities via grassroots group meetings and free education on compliance with workforce-related legislation. On the employer side, the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program – an initiative of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity – recognizes businesses with a strong commitment to providing work opportunities to individuals with disabilities and helps foster employer-employee relationships. Other organizations that serve as disability rights advocates in Florida include Disability Rights Florida, the Family Network on Disabilities of Florida, the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, the Financial Literacy Program for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities, and the Governor's Commission on Disabilities, among others.
In the unfortunate case that your civil rights are violated, the Florida Civil Rights Act does not limit the amount of damages you can be awarded in a court of law as reciprocation for pain and suffering, though it does impose a cap of $100,000 for punitive damages.