While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against the disabled in areas other than employment (such as housing, public services and accommodations), this article only addresses workplace discrimination claims under Title I of the Act. As with Title VII, the ADA only applies to employers with 15 or more employees (full or part time) on the payroll during the current or previous year. It does not apply to employees of the federal government, who are provided similar protections under the Rehabilitation Act. Private, state and local government employers are covered under the ADA.
The Americans With Disabilities Act — What Employees Are Covered?
Assuming the employer is a non-federal employer with 15 or more employees, any qualified employee (or applicant) with a “disability” is protected from workplace discrimination under the ADA. The ADA considers an employee to have a disability if he or she is a person who:
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- Has a record of such an impairment; or
- Is regarded as having such an impairment.
As one might gather from the above definition, not every illness, injury or disease will qualify as a “disability” for purposes of the ADA. It must be either permanent or long term and it must limit one or more “major life activities”, which include: caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Other examples of major life activities include sitting, standing, lifting, and mental and emotional processes such as thinking, concentrating, and interacting with others.
Note that the ADA not only protects those who actually have a disability, but also those who are “regarded as having such an impairment” by the employer. So, if an employer falsely believes that you are disabled and discriminates against you based on that belief, you are protected by the ADA. This can occur under many different circumstances, such as where the employer is misinformed by a co-worker or where the employee has a disfigurement or unusual appearance which actually causes no impairment, or if the employee has a speech impairment that the employer misinterprets for a mental deficiency.
The ADA also protects those who do not have a disability, but have a relationship or associate with someone who does. For example, if an employee has a disabled child, an employer cannot discriminate based on the assumption that the employee would miss work more often than other employees due to the child’s needs. Also, if a person does charity work with those infected with HIV/AIDS, an employer cannot discriminate against that employee because of its fears that the person may contract the disease through such casual contact.
The Americans With Disabilities Act Only Protects Employees Who are “Qualified” to Do the Job
Some disabilities will prevent people from being able to perform certain types of jobs under any conditions. The ADA only protects disabled employees who are qualified to perform the job at issue. An employee is still qualified to perform a job if he needs a “reasonable accommodation” from the employer to do so. Reasonable accommodations will vary based on the type of disability and the requirements of each job. For example, a blind person may require a braille computer keyboard or software which orally reads things from the screen into headphones.
Whether the employer must provide a requested accommodation by the disabled employee depends upon whether such an accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business, given its size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of its business. Also, an employer is not required to make a reasonable accommodation unless the employee requests it.
In short, applying the “reasonable accommodation” requirement and the “undue hardship” exception under the ADA comes down to a balancing test, weighing the cost and inconvenience to the employer against the needs of disabled employees. The cheaper and easier it is for an employer (given its resources) to accommodate a disabled employee, the more likely it will be required to provide the accommodation under the ADA.
Retaliation is Prohibited Under The Americans With Disabilities Act
As with all federal employment discrimination laws, the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who assert their federal rights. This includes not only the filing of an EEOC charge or a lawsuit, but also complaints made directly to the employer, such as a complaint about not being provided a reasonable accommodation.
Filing a Claim Under The Americans With Disabilities Act
The procedures and deadlines for filing an EEOC charge and a lawsuit under the ADA are identical to those under Title VII, and are discussed in this article.
Damages Under The Americans With Disabilities Act
Damages available under the ADA are identical to those available to Title VII plaintiffs, as discussed in this article. One additional form of “equitable remedy” an ADA claimant may receive is an order from the court requiring the employer to provide him or her with a “reasonable accommodation.”