Federal Employment Discrimination Law - Disability

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What Does Federal Law Require of Employers For Disabled Employees?

The Americans Disability Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment based on disability. This means that an employer may not fire or refuse to hire an otherwise qualified employee based on a physical or mental disability.

The law also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. The key word here is “reasonable.” The law does not require employers to make every accommodation that might allow a disabled employee to do the job.

Who Does The Act Protect?

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity.” Although the courts had originally defined “disability” very narrowly, a 2008 amendment to the ADA reversed the courts. Thus, the ADA covers traditional notions of disability, such as being wheel-chair bound or bipolar, and less traditional notions of disability, such as cancer, HIV, learning disabilities, alcohol addictionor diabetes.

The Act also covers employees who are perceived as disabled by their employers. For example, a former cancer patient whose illness has lessened to the point where the disease no longer inhibits major life activity would still be protected from discrimination by the employer.

Note that the ADA only protects major life activities. The ADA gives examples of these activities, such as caring for oneself, sleeping, eating, communicating, seeing, hearing, standing, or walking, among others.

A 2008 Amendment to the ADA removed a number of judiciary restrictions to the definition of disability. To be considered disabled, a person does not have to show that the disability is incurable, that other people share the disability, nor does the person have to make mandatory doctor appointments.

Which Employers Are Required To Follow the Act?

The act applies to private employers, state and local governments, labor unions, and employment agencies. The act applies to employers who have at least fifteen or more employees.
The federal government, as an employer, is regulated by a separate law.

Can an Employer Request Medical Examinations?

Under the ADA, an employer may not request medical examinations of a job seeker. After employment has begun though, the employer may ask new hires to undergo a medical examination provided that the examination is related to the job and the exam is administered to all new hires. Tests for illegal drug use are excluded from this law.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

Reasonable accommodations include things like modifying existing facilities to make them accessible to all employees. It also could include hiring readers and interpreters, modification of work schedules, or reassignment to vacant positions. Employers may also be required to provide an employee with a leave of absence to accommodate their disability.

Can An Employer Ever Fire or Refuse To Hire Someone Who Has a Disability?

The ADA is not a free pass for poor job performance, complete inability to work, or conduct not within the scope of legal employment.  An employer is not required to wait indefinitely for an employee to be able to perform the functions of a job.If an employee’s disability prevents them from doing their job, the employer may fire or refuse to hire them. However, the employer should attempt to make reasonable accommodations before doing so.

The law also specifically excludes persons who are engaging in the unlawful use of drugs. For example, addiction to alcohol is listed as a disability, meaning that an employer may not refuse to hire or fire someone simply for the status of being an alcohol addict. If, however, an employee is drinking during work, that employee could be fired, even if the employee has alcohol addition as a disability.

If an Employer Is Discriminating Against Me Because of My Disability, Do I Need a Lawyer?

Employment discrimination can be intimidating due to the power imbalance inherent in an employee and employer relationship. If you believe your employer is discriminating against you because of a physical or mental disability, an experienced employment lawyer can help you claim your rights. Remember, this law applies to perceived disability as well, so employees who are discriminated against because of what their employer thinks of them can also have redress. 

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Last Modified: 08-27-2013 02:48 PM PDT

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