Americans With Disabilities Act

Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, and substantially amended the statute in 2008, for the purpose of preventing discrimination against persons with disabilities. Many disabled employees can be productive if the employer merely provides a reasonable accommodation.

This article explains the statutory meaning of “disabled,” what is required for a “reasonable accommodation,” and employers’ defenses for refusing to provide an accommodation requested by a disabled employee.

How Does the ADA Protect Employees?

 Specifically, under the ADA an employer cannot:

  • Discriminate “against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment”;
  • Discriminate against employees and applicants on the basis of a disability, meaning a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment; or are regarded as having such an impairment”; or
  • Fail to provide reasonable accommodations for a qualified employee or applicant with a disability, such as providing handicap accessible facilities, modifying work schedules, restructuring, or providing modified equipment or interpreters. 

What Is a "Disability" Under the ADA?

To determine whether there is a “disability,” the law assesses an individual’s particular condition. When viewing the individual, the question is whether a physical or mental condition impairs any of that employee’s “major life activities.” Further, courts apply this test considering the condition as it exists untreated.

For example, poor eyesight without glasses or contacts would prevent a person from being hired as a pilot for a commercial airline. A reasonable accommodation permits that employee to wear glasses or contact lenses and perform the essential functions of a pilot. A person with diabetes can be “disabled,” although taking insulin remedies his medical problem.  Another example of an accommodation is the use of telecommunications relay services, which is a telephone service that allows persons with hearing or speech disabilities to place and receive telephone calls.

Currently, experts debate whether COVID-19 comes within the definition of “disability.” Employers have a defense by proving that an impairment is transitory and also that it is minor, which is the argument that employers advance regarding COVID-19. However, so much still is unknown about this unique coronavirus that even the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has not provided a definitive answer.

The ADA Protects Disabled Employees, Who With Accommodation, Can Perform the Essential Functions of the Job.

Disabled employees must be “qualified” for the job. In other words, they must be able to do the regular work that other employees perform in that same position. The added difference is that, upon request by the employee, the employer is required to provide the disabled employee a modification of the workplace environment that will accommodate the employee’s physical or mental impairment.

The accommodation must be such to permit the disabled employee to perform his job. If no accommodation exists that will achieve this result, then the employer can terminate the disabled person or refuse to hire the person in the first instance. If the disabled employee cannot perform the required tasks of the job, even with a reasonable accommodation, the ADA does not protect him.

The employer can refuse to provide the requested accommodation if it presents an “undue hardship,” meaning that the accommodation requires difficulty or expense to provide, would disrupt the workplace, or is otherwise overly burdensome to the business. Also, an employer is not required to provide the requested accommodation if the disabled employee’s being hired or continuing in the job would be a “direct threat” to the safety of other employees.

No claim can be filed against an employer under the ADA unless the company employees 15 or more employees.  “Mom and Pop” businesses are exempt from the ADA’s coverage.

Have You Been Treated Unfavorably Because of a Disability?

At Gardner Employment Law, we understand the many complexities of the ADA. If you were passed up for a job or otherwise treated unfairly because of a disability, or if your employer believes that you are somehow “disabled” but you are not, give us a call. We can help you to find a way to turn your situation around.

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