The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against otherwise qualified employees or potential employees because of their disability. That means that an employer cannot fire or refuse to fire someone because they are physically or mentally disabled.

The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. The ADA does not require employers to make any and all accommodations requested by a disabled employee, but only those that are reasonable and do not cause the employer undue hardship.

Who Does the Act Protect?

The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of life. Title I of the ADA specifically addresses workplace protections intended to ensure people with disabilities have the same employment opportunities as everyone else.

A person with a disability is someone who has a mental or physical 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.

Both elements must be met for a person to be considered disabled and qualify for protection from discrimination in the workplace under the ADA. The employee or potential employee must have a mental or physical impairment AND that impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities:

Mental or physical impairment: the law does not specify what type of mental or physical impairments qualify a person as disabled. Instead, the focus is on how much of an impact the impairment has on the person’s life. The intent behind the broad application is to ensure the law applies to covers everyone who needs its protection.

Major life activities: “Major life activities” applies to many tasks that might be impacted by a person’s disability. Again, broad language is used so that the law is not limiting in terms of who qualifies for its protection. Examples of major life activities could include: taking care of oneself, doing 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 major bodily functions performed by the body’s systems. Such as, the immune system, digestive system, circulatory system, endocrine, reproductive, and respiratory systems. It may laos include function performed by the bladder, the bowel, and the brain.

Which Employers are Required to Follow the Act?

The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor organizations. The prohibitions against discrimation outlined in the ADA also apply to federal employees under the federal civil rights law found in section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Can an Employer Request Medical Examinations?

When a person is applying for a job the employer may not ask questions about their disability or require a medical examination. Even medical examinations related to the job are prohibited.

After an applicant has been offered a job but before they begin working, the employer may ask questions about the disability and require a medical examination. As long as any disability-related questions and medical examinations are the same for every employee starting the same position, they do not have to be related to the job.

Once an employee has officially started in their position, the employer is permitted to ask questions about the disability and require medical examinations only if they are related to the job. They must also be necessary to the functioning of the business.

Not all medical procedures are considered medical examinations under the ADA. Employers may require blood or urine tests to determine if employees have used illegal drugs. Physical fitness tests and polygraphs (lie detector tests) are also not considered medical examinations.

What are Reasonable Accommodations?

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. These may be in addition to features already required by the ADA, like ramps that already make buildings accessible for people who use wheelchairs. The “Architectural Barriers Act” is the law that requires federal buildings or buildings built using federal funds to be accessible and usable by people with disabilities.
  • 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.

Can an Employer Ever Fire or Refuse to Hire Someone who has a Disability?

The ADA prohibits discrimination in the workplace, but does not require an employer to hire or continue to employ someone with a disability who cannot perform an essential function of the job. It is not reasonable for an employer to remove an essential function from the position. An essential function is one that is fundamental to the position.

If an applicant cannot perform that function with or without reasonable accommodation, the employer can refuse to hire them. They would not be considered qualified. If it becomes apparent that an employee cannot perform an essential function even after they have been provided a reasonable accommodation, they can be fired.

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

If you think your employer is discriminating against you because of your disability, or because they believe you have a disability, you should consult with an employment attorney or discrimination attorney. An experienced attorney can explain the applicable provisions of the ADA and how its protections might apply to you.