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 applies to state and local government agencies, private businesses that are generally open to the public, employers with 15 or more employees, labor unions, and employment agencies.

The ADA requires the entities covered by the law to make reasonable accommodations or modification to their policies and practices so that people with disabilities can enjoy the same access and opportunities as everyone else.

What is Considered a Disability Under the ADA?

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 defined very broadly in the language of the law. The intent is to avoid limiting who might be covered by the provisions. Instead the focus is on how substantial the impairment or condition is, and how much it affects a person’s day-to-day life.

Major life activities: “Major life activities” is also a relatively broad term. Again, the goal is for the law to apply to everyone who needs its particular protection. Major life activities may include, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

In many instances, “major life activities” can also include the operation of major body systems and functions.

How Do I Stay in Compliance with the ADA?

If you are covered by the ADA you are required to make reasonable accommodations to your policies and practices so that disabled individuals can enjoy the same access and opportunities as everyone else.

An employer must comply with several requirements of the ADA during the hiring and employment process.

When a person is applying for a job the employer may not ask questions about their disability or require a medical examination. They may ask the applicant about their ability to perform job-related functions.

Prior to an employee starting a new job, the employer is allowed to ask questions about the employee’s disability and require a medical examination. Any questions related to the disability and medical examinations must be the same for every employee starting the same position, though they do not have to be job-related.

Once the employee has started, the employer may ask questions about the disability and require medical examinations only if they are related to the job. Disability-related questions and medical examinations must be necessary to the functioning of the business.

The difference between an acceptable question and an unacceptable and discriminatory one might be as simple as the wording. For example, it is acceptable to ask an applicant in a wheelchair if they can lift and carry 30 pounds. It is not acceptable to assume they cannot lift 30 pounds and ask, “How does a person in a wheelchair lift and carry 30 pounds?”

Employers must make reasonable accommodations for qualified disabled people so that they have the same employment opportunities as everyone else. Reasonable accommodations might mean changes to the application process, work environment, changes in how the job is normally performed, or altering policies and procedures.

Employers are not required to make reasonable accommodations that would cause the employer undue hardship. Undue hardship is typically defined as involving significant difficulty or expense.

State and Local Government Activities
The ADA requires that state and local governments provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in programs, services, and activities. These include public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, and town hall meetings.

Like employers, state and local governments must provide reasonable accommodations that allow people with disabilities to participate in their programs, services, and activities. They are not required to make accommodations that would cause an undue financial or administrative burden. They are also not required to make accommodations that would fundamentally change the nature of the programs, services, and activities being offered.

Public Accommodations
The ADA also covers public accommodations, which includes restaurants, stores, movie theaters, hotels, private schools, conventions centers, zoos, recreation centers, including fitness facilities and sports stadiums, doctors’ officers, funeral homes, daycare centers, and transportation depots, like bus and train stations. This is essentially every place the public is welcome, even when those places are privately owned or leased.

Public accommodations are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities, and must ensure their facilities are accessible. They must also provide reasonable accommodations to their policies, unless it:

  • Would be an undue burden;
  • Would fundamentally alter the service being provided; or
  • The accommodation would be a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

For example, during a pandemic, a public accommodation like a retail store might institute a policy requiring customers to wear a mask while shopping. Customers with certain disabilities might not be able to wear a mask. The ADA requires to store to make reasonable accommodations for those individuals. Reasonable accommodations might include:

  • Allowing customers to wear a loose face covering or shield; or
  • Increasing the availability of online or telephone ordering and curbside pick-up so that customers do not need to come inside.

As with all requests for reasonable accommodations, if the accommodation would cause an undue burden or fundamentally alter the service being provided, the store is not required to alter their policy. The store is also not required to make any changes that might pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

If a reasonable accommodation to a face mask policy would result in a threat to the health and safety of other customers, a store does not have to allow a customer to enter without a mask. The decision to deny entry to customers who will not wear a face mask or covering because of their disability must be based on real and specific risks, not speculation or generalizations. To be in compliance with the ADA, policies must be consistent with the guidance given by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health authorities.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I’m Dealing with ADA Issues?

An experienced discrimination lawyer can help you understand the ADA and determine if you are in compliance or need to make changes to your workplace, government agency, or public accommodation.

Consulting an employment law attorney specifically can be very helpful if you are an employer concerned with how the ADA affects your hiring and employment practices. A lawyer can also represent you in court if you have been accused of discrimination.