The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a Federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of life. The ADA provides protections in schools, transportation, any public or private place that is generally open to the public, and in the workplace.

The ADA addresses workplace protections intended to ensure employees with disabilities have access to the same opportunities and benefits as everyone else.

Who is Covered by the ADA?

The ADA applies to employers with 15 employees or more, including state and local governments. Employment organizations and labor unions are also subject to the ADA requirements.

Some states have enacted their own laws protecting people with disabilities that provide more protections than the ADA. For example, in California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act lowers the minimum number of employees to five. Both California and Massachusetts use a much broader definition of disability, thus more employees are protected.

What Qualifies as a Disability?

According to the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA also protects people who have a history of a mental or physical impairment, and people who appear to others to have a mental or physical impairment.

The ADA does not specify disabilities that are covered, however looking at the terms “mental or physical impairment” and “major life activities” can provide some clarification.

Mental or physical impairment: Mental or physical impairment is kept very broad in the language of the law. This is intentional so that the law does not limit who might be covered. The focus is on how substantial the impairment is instead of what kind of impairment the person has.

Major life activities: “Major life activities” is a broad term that was intentionally used to encompass many day-to-day tasks that might be affected by a disability. Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

Major life activities can also include the operation of major body systems, including the immune system, bladder, bowel, brain, circulatory, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, and respiratory functions.

Do Employers Need to Accommodate Disabilities?

Employers covered by the ADA only need to make reasonable accommodations for disabled people who are qualified for the type of job they are seeking. Employers must make reasonable accommodation unless they would cause undue hardship to the employer.

What are Reasonable Accommodations?

An accommodation is reasonable if it is feasible. In other words, it can be done without causing the employer undue hardship. Generally, a reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are done that makes it possible for an applicant or employee to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

Reasonable accommodations may include changes to the application process, changes to the physical work environment or the way to the job is normally performed, or changes that allow an employee to enjoy the same benefits and privileges as an employee in the same or similar position who is not disabled.

Some examples of reasonable accommodations that might be requested include:

  • Adding features that make existing facilities accessible
  • Modifying the work schedule
  • Adding equipment or making changes to existing equipment
  • Making changes to the way training is done and tests are administered
  • Altering policies in the workplace
  • Providing an interpreter or reader
  • Reassigning an employee to a different available position

A requested accommodation that would require an employer to remove an essential function from the job would not be considered reasonable. A person who cannot perform an essential function of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation, is not considered qualified. An essential function or duty is one that is fundamental to the position.

An employer is also not required to lower production standards. They can if they wish, but are not required. A reasonable accommodation would be one that allows the disabled employee to meet the standard.

How Does Undue Hardship Factor In?

According to the ADA, an employer is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so would cause undue hardship. Undue hardship is typically defined as causing significant difficulty or expense to the employer. What is considered a significant difficulty or expense will depend on the circumstances of the employer and the nature of their business.

Employers must look at requests for accommodation on a case-by-case basis to determine if they would cause undue hardship. Examples of accommodations that might cause undue hardship include those that would fundamentally alter the operation of the business, are extensive, disruptive, or are too expensive considering the financial resources of the employer.

Should I Speak with a Lawyer for Help with ADA Issues?

Whether you are an employee, applicant, or employer, you should consult with an experienced employment law attorney if you have a question about the Americans with Disabilities Act. An attorney can help you determine your rights and responsibilities under the law.

They can explain the ADA, determine whether there should be reasonable accommodations made, and help you decide whether further action should be taken. A lawyer can also represent you in court if you are a party to a case involving the ADA.