The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects against discrimination of individuals with disabilities. In the workplace, the ADA forbids employers from making discriminatory decisions based on a disability with respect to hiring, firing, raises, promotions, social activities, and other privileges of employment.

Who Is Covered by the ADA?

Pursuant to the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees are forbidden to discriminate against employees who:

  • Have a disability
  • Have a history of impairment
  • Are related to or have a relationship with someone who is disabled
  • The employer perceives as disabled, even if the are not

Some states, like California, have their own specific disabilities laws in effect that may offer more protection than the ADA. For example, in California, the equivalent law—the Fair Employment and Housing Act—lowers the number of employees to 5.

Put simply, if there is any possibility of a disability or a history of a disability, then the employee will likely be protected.

What Qualifies as a Disability?

Disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. To understand what that means, it is best to take the big definitions element by element.

  • "Physical or Mental Impairment" – This standard is necessarily broad, as Congress did not intend to limit who or who not could be covered by the law. The purpose of using a broad standard is to focus on how substantial the impairment is, versus the impairment itself.
  • "Major Life Activity" – Because the focus is on how substantial the impairment is, this element focuses on day-to-day activities and looks at how the impairment may affect those. Consequently, what qualifies is also broad.

Moreover, a comprehensive list would be impossible. Common major life activities include but are not limited to: taking care of oneself, performing physical tasks, seeing, hearing, walking, lifting, eating, speaking, breathing, reading, thinking, and communicating. Important functions – such as cell growth and brain activity – are also considered major life activities.

Do Employers Need to Accommodate Disabilities?

Considering the breadth of disabilities covered by the ADA, it may seem like everyone needs to be accommodated in some way. However, employers are only required to act under certain situations.

Reasonable Accommodations

The first step is the individual with the disability requesting a reasonable accommodation. Next, the employer and the employee will need to have a conversation about how such an accommodation will help the employee complete their essential job duties.

The employer is under no obligation to provide the requested accommodation, but if an accommodation is necessary to allow the employee to conduct an essential job duty, then the employer must make some type of reasonable accommodation.

Undue Hardship

The only other exception to when an employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation is when doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. Put simply, an undue hardship is a significant cost or expense for the business.

Several factors go into determining whether or not a reasonable accommodation will cause an undue hardship or not, such as the nature of the accommodation to the size of the business and the business’ resources.

Should I Speak with an Lawyer?

Regardless of whether you are an employer or someone with a disability, it is best practice to consult with an employment attorney before taking any action. A lawyer can explain the ADA to you, whether or not a reasonable accommodation will need to be made, and help you pick the best course of action to protect your rights.