Employment Discrimination - The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a disabled person with regard to certain employment practices, including recruitment, pay, hiring, firing, promotion, job assignments, training, leave, lay-off, benefits, and all other employment-related activities. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It is illegal for employers to retaliate against an applicant or employee for asserting his or her rights under the ADA. It’s also unlawful to discriminate against an applicant or employee because of that person’s relationship or association with someone with a disability. For example, this means that an employer cannot discriminate because you need to take care of a disabled relative, as long as you can fulfill the duties of the job.

Hiring Criteria—Who Is Protected By the ADA?

Prospective employers may not discriminate against a person covered by the ADA when hiring. Defining those individuals who are covered by the ADA is a two-step process. First, the individual must be disabled and second, he or she must be qualified for the position.

The ADA defines a disability in one of three ways: An individual with a disability is defined as 1) a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; 2) someone who has a record or history of a substantial impairment; or 3) someone who is regarded by the employer as having a substantial impairment.

A qualified employee or applicant is someone who can perform the essential duties of the job, even if they need reasonable accommodations to do so. Examples of reasonable accommodations include making facilities disabled accessible, modifying work schedules or job restructuring, adjusting training materials or policies, and providing readers or interpreters. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations as long as they aren’t an “undue hardship,” which means that the accommodations can’t be significantly expensive or difficult considering the employer’s size, financial resources and nature of the business. Additionally, employers are not required to lower standards to make an accommodation.

Additional Coverage

Employers cannot ask applicants about whether they have a disability or about the severity of it, but may ask applicants about their ability to carry out specific job functions. It’s also illegal for employers to require a medical exam before they make an offer of employment. Employers may hire you on the condition that you pass a medical exam, but onlyif a medical exam is required for all employees with similar jobs. All medical exams must be job related. Testing for illegal drugs is not considered a medical exam under the ADA and is permissible under the Act.

Filing a Charge

If you think an employer has violated your civil rights under the ADA (denied you the equal opportunity for a job, failed to allow reasonable accommodations, etc.), you may file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by contacting the nearest EEOC field office by mail or in person within 180 days from the violation. In states that have local or state laws against disability discrimination, you may have up to 300 days from the violation, but it’s best to contact the EEOC as soon as the violation has occurred.

Mediation–An Alternative to Litigation

As an alternative to a full investigation and litigation, the EEOC also provides mediation at no charge. Mediation is an informal process where a neutral third party helps the two sides reach a voluntary, negotiated agreement. In mediation, instead of the traditional “winner” and “loser” of a court battle, the two sides come together to understand the other’s position and find an acceptable middle ground. The mediation process is strictly confidential and information disclosed during the mediation session will not be revealed to anyone, including other EEOC employees.

How to Contact the EEOC

The EEOC can be reached by phone (in more than 100 languages) at (800) 669- 4000; by mail at U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, P.O. Box 7033, Lawrence, Kansas 66044; at your nearest EEOC field office; or at the EEOC National Contact Center Support site.

For more information on the EEOC and rights protected by the ADA, check out the EEOC Disability Discrimination page.

To find out when employers have to accommodate disabled employees, look at the FreeAdvice ADA FAQs.