Last week marked the 22nd anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark federal law that prohibits private employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. But even though the ADA has been the law of the land for over 2 decades, many employers still have questions regarding whom the law protects and what the law requires.
If your company is covered by the ADA, our questions and answers below may help you determine whether you're in compliance with the law.
1. When Does Disability Discrimination Occur?
- Disability discrimination occurs when an employer covered by the ADA treats a qualified individual with a disability who is an employee or applicant unfavorably because he or she has a disability.
- Disability discrimination also occurs when an employer treats an applicant or employee less favorably because he or she has a history of a disability (such as cancer that is controlled or in remission) or because he or she is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last 6 months or less) and minor (even if the individual does not have such an impairment).
- The law also protects people from discrimination based on their relationship with a person with a disability (even if they do not themselves have a disability). For example, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because her husband has a disability.
2. Must I Make Reasonable Accommodations?
A covered employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it would not impose an "undue hardship" on the operation of the employer's business.
Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications provided by an employer to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations vary depending upon the needs of the individual applicant or employee. Not all people with disabilities (or even all people with the same disability) will require the same accommodation. For example:
- A deaf applicant may need a sign language interpreter during the job interview.
- An employee with diabetes may need regularly scheduled breaks during the workday to eat properly and monitor blood sugar and insulin levels.
- A blind employee may need someone to read information posted on a bulletin board.
- An employee with cancer may need leave to have radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
3. What is Meant by "Undue Hardship"?
An employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it imposes an "undue hardship." Undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer's size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of its operation.
An employer generally does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation unless an individual with a disability has asked for one. If an employer believes that a medical condition is causing a performance or conduct problem, it may ask the employee how to solve the problem and if the employee needs a reasonable accommodation. Once a reasonable accommodation is requested, the employer and the individual should discuss the individual's needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. Where more than one accommodation would work, the employer may choose the one that is less costly or that is easier to provide.
4. What Else Does the ADA Cover?
Note these other key provisions of the ADA:
- Title I of the ADA covers medical examinations and inquiries. An employer may not ask a job applicant about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability, though it may ask about his or her ability to perform specific job functions. A job offer may be conditioned on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required for all entering employees in similar jobs. Medical examinations of employees must be job related and consistent with the employer’s business needs.
- It is unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on disability or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADA.
For More Information
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers formal guidance documents, fact sheets, FAQs, and other publications on its Disability Discrimination website to help employers understand the complex issues surrounding disability discrimination. You can also learn more about the ADA in our section on Disability Discrimination. And for even more information on important federal labor laws that may affect your company, including the ADA, download our free Federal Labor Laws by Company Size Chart.
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