The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of disability. Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination, both by private and public employers, against qualified individuals with disabilities. Individuals who have been discriminated against may seek relief in court or through arbitration. 

If they are successful in doing so, they may be entitled to remedies. Remedies include (among other things) money damages, job restoration, front pay, back pay, and punitive damages. 

What is a Disability under the ADA?

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency that enforces the ADA, defines a disability as:

  • Any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the employee’s major life activities
  • A record (or past history) of such physical or mental impairment; or
  • Being regarded as having a disability. ”Being regarded as” having a disability means that other people believe that an individual has a disability when in fact they do not.  

A mental impairment is defined as:

  • A mental or psychological disorder, such as an intellectual disability;
  • An emotional or mental illness; or
  • A specific learning disability. Examples of learning disabilities include language processing disorders, dyslexia, and auditory processing disorder (APD). 

Examples of mental impairments may include:

  • Organic brain disorder;
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD);
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD);
  • Depression;
  • Schizophrenia; and
  • Bipolar disorder.

What are Major Life Activities According to the ADA?

Major life activities include various types of tasks, especially physical tasks. These tasks include caring for oneself, performing manual labor, breathing, communicating with others, seeing, walking, sitting, hearing, climbing, driving, bending over, and reaching.

Major life activities also include reading, thinking, concentrating, reading, and working. 

Finally, major life activities also include the operation of major bodily functions, such as functions of the immune or respiratory systems. 

What Does the ADA Prohibit?

The ADA prohibits both private and public employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Employers may not discriminate in the following aspects of employment (among others):   

  • Job applications, interviews, tests, or written questionnaires;
  • Hiring and job assignments;
  • Opportunities for promotion or advancement;
  • Performance evaluations;
  • Disciplinary actions; and
  • Termination of employment.

The ADA also prohibits disability-based workplace harassment.  

What is Reasonable Accommodation Discrimination?

Discrimination may also occur when an employer refuses to grant a reasonable accommodation for their disabilities (such as wheelchair ramps). Qualified individuals with disabilities may seek reasonable accommodations.

A “qualified individual” is an individual who can perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodations. Essential job functions are the fundamental duties of a job position. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, reasonable accommodations consist of:

  • Ensuring equal opportunities in the job application process;
  • Enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform essential functions of their job; and
  • Making provisions for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

What are Examples of Reasonable Accommodations?

Examples of reasonable accommodations include

  • Reduction or removal of distractions in the work area. Such distractions may include loud noises that limit the major life activity of concentration;
  • Providing room dividers or soundproofing between workspaces. This accommodation can reduce visual distractions that limit the major life activities of thinking or reading; and  
  • Private offices or private space enclosures. Such enclosures may reduce distractions limiting the ability to think, concentrate, or read.

Are there Any Defenses an Employer May Have Against an ADA Claim?

An employer may have valid defenses to a claim of discrimination. Defenses include:

  • The individual claiming the discrimination is not disabled. Medical examinations, medical opinions, and expert medical testimony may be required to prove this defense; 
  • The individual claiming discrimination is not capable of performing the essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation. In other words, the employee is not a qualified individual with a disability. 
  • A requested accommodation constitutes an undue hardship on the employer’s business operations. Undue hardship involves an employer incurring significant difficulty or expense in providing a requested reasonable accommodation; 
  • A requested accommodation is not feasible, given the nature of the employee’s job or position. For example, a request to telecommute may not be reasonable depending upon the nature of the job. If, for example, the employee is a salesperson who must be supervised face-to-face, in person, telecommuting may not be a reasonable accommodation; and
  • An act claimed to be discriminatory was, in fact, taken for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. An example is if an individual with a disability is terminated for poor job performance. 

Do I Need a Lawyer to Pursue or Defend Against an Employment Discrimination Claim?

Employment discrimination claims can be complex. You may need to have an employment lawyer assist you if you believe that you may have been subjected to discrimination on the basis of a mental disability. 

You may need to contact an employment law attorney to help you review the facts and circumstances of your situation. The lawyer can also determine the appropriate claim filing deadlines. A lawyer can protect your rights by representing you at hearings, arbitration proceedings, or trial.