Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

What Is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that makes it illegal for employers, state and local governments, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunication agencies to discriminate against anyone with a disability. Discrimination means you are treated unfairly or unequally because you have a disability.

How Does the ADA Define Disability?

The ADA uses the term “substantial impairment” to define which disabilities qualify for protection. To be protected under the law, you must have, have a record of, or be thought to have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activities, such as hearing, seeing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning, or working. Major life activities also include the operation of major bodily functions. You are covered under the ADA if you have a condition that affects any of the following:

  • The immune system
  • Special sense organs
  • The skin
  • Cell growth
  • Digestive, genitourinary, bowel, and bladder functions
  • Nervous system, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions

The ADA also protects you in the following cases:

  • You have a history of a disability (such as cancer that is now in remission) or an employer believes that you have a disability, even if you don't.
  • You have a relationship with a person who is disabled, even if you do not have a disability yourself. For example, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because your spouse or child has a disability.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces the ADA. Later in this article, we’ll talk more about what to do if you think your employer is not following the ADA.

Does the ADA Apply to All Employers?

The ADA applies to all public and private employers with 15 or more employees and to all state and local government employers, regardless of how many employees they have. The ADA does not apply to federal agencies. Instead, federal agencies have to follow the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is almost identical to the ADA.

What Parts of Employment Does the ADA Cover?

The ADA covers all aspects of employment, including:

  • Hiring, firing, and pay
  • Job assignment, promotion, layoff, training, and fringe benefits (such as health care coverage, pension, or retirement contributions)
  • Any other term or condition of employment

It is also illegal for an employer to retaliate against, or get back at, you for asserting your rights under the ADA. So you are protected when you do things like tell your employer you have a disability, ask for a reasonable accommodation, or file a complaint.

If you have a disability and are employed, or looking for a job, your right to ask for reasonable accommodations is one of the most important parts of the ADA. In addition to protecting people with disabilities from discrimination, the ADA also requires employers to supply you with accommodations at your workplace or when you apply for a job, unless doing so would be an undue burden or hardship to the employer. An undue burden means it would be very difficult or very expensive for the employer to give you the accommodation you ask for.

To learn more about jobs and how to request reasonable accommodations, see DB101’s article on job accommodations.

Who Is Protected Under the ADA?

You are protected under the ADA, if you have a disability (see the section How Does the ADA Define Disability? above) and you are qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job. This means two things:

  1. You must meet certain conditions that the employer needs job applicants to have, such as education, work experience, skills, or licenses.
  2. You must be able to perform the fundamental duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. An employer cannot refuse to hire you because your disability prevents you from performing duties that are not essential to the job. At the same time, you cannot ask that an essential function be removed from your job description as a reasonable accommodation.
Example

You work as a telephone marketer and it is an essential function that you need to be able to speak clearly. However, it is not an essential function that you need to be able to lift heavy objects. Your employer cannot fire you because you cannot lift heavy objects or require all employees to be able to lift a certain amount of weight.

Where Can You Learn More About the ADA?

The opportunity to participate in the employment process is a right guaranteed by both state and federal law. The federal law is Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The federal agency that enforces the employment discrimination part of the ADA is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC has numerous publications that can help you learn more about your rights, including: