ADA: Disabilities & Your Rights as an Employee
Discrimination in employment against qualified individuals with disabilities is prohibited by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This includes private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations (such as unions) and labor-management committees. The ADA covers employment practices such as recruitment, hiring, firing, promotions, training, job assignments, benefits, pay and all other employment-related activities.
Retaliation by an employer for asserting your ADA rights also is prohibited, as is discrimination based on a relationship with an individual with a disability.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces ADA regulations among employers with 15 or more employees. The U.S. Department of Justice enforces ADA regulations in state and local government programs, regardless of how many employees are in the organization.
ADA: Disabilities and Protections
You are regarded as having a disability, in the eyes of the ADA, if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. ADA protections also cover those with a history of a disability or whose employer believes they have a disability, even if no actual disability exists. To be protected under the ADA, a disability must be considered a substantial (as opposed to minor) impairment. This would include impairments that significantly limit speaking, seeing, hearing, walking, performing manual tasks, breathing or similarly major life activities.
Also, you must be qualified to adequately perform the essentials of the job, whether or not you require a reasonable accommodation, in order to be covered by the ADA. That means you must fulfill the requirements for the job (education, experience, skills, etc.) and you must be able to perform the essential functions of the position. Employers may not refuse to hire you if your disability limits you from performing tasks that are not considered essential to the job.
Individuals who use drugs illegally are not protected by the ADA, even if they are in a substance abuse treatment program.
ADA rights include access to reasonable accommodations, such as changes or adjustments to the workplace, that help an individual with a disability do his or her job and enjoy the benefits afforded to employees without disabilities. By stipulating a "reasonable" accommodation, ADA regulations do not require measures that would create an undue hardship in difficulty or expense.
Reasonable accommodations may include the following:
- Flexible or modified work schedules
- Adjustment of training materials and employee policies
- Providing new or modifying existing equipment
- Making the workplace more accessible by people with disabilities
- Job restructuring
- Reassignment to another position
- Providing interpreters
Medical Examinations and Questions About Disabilities
An employer may not ask whether you are disabled or inquire about the nature of an apparent disability if you are applying for a job. However, they may ask if you can perform the essential duties of the job and whether you would need a reasonable accommodation to do so.
The ADA prohibits employers from asking you to take a medical examination prior to offering you a job, but an offer may be conditional on your passing a medical examination if all employees in the same job category are required to do so as well. Employers may use the results of a pre-employment examination to exclude you from consideration for the job only if it is specifically job-related. In other words, they may not exclude you if you can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Similar rules apply to those who already have been hired and started work, in that any additional medical examination or questions about a disability must be job-related only. For example, many jobs require lifting up to a certain weight or standing for a given number of hours.
Employers are allowed to conduct medical examinations on a voluntary basis, such as those related to a health or wellness program, and they may provide required medical information pertaining to a workers' compensation claim. Results of medical examinations are considered confidential and must be maintained in separate files.
What to Do if You Have Been Discriminated Against
If you believe you have been discriminated against on the basis of a real or perceived disability in an employment context, contact the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. If a state or local law also protects against discrimination on the basis of disability, you may have as many as 300 days to file a charge.
You may file a charge by calling or visiting your local EEOC field office. If the agency concludes through its investigation that discrimination did in fact occur, you are entitled to a remedy that will "make you whole" or compensate for the discriminatory act. This may include getting hired, promoted, reinstated, paid back wages, provided with a reasonable accommodation and even repaid attorneys fees.
Additional ADA Assistance
A technical assistance program is available through the EEOC to promote ADA compliance among employers and to help people with disabilities better understand their ADA rights. Additionally, the EEOC published a Technical Assistance Manual to help with the practical application of ADA regulations to specific jobs and employment activities.
Disputes resulting from misunderstandings between employers and employees may be resolved through negotiations or mediation, as opposed to the formal enforcement process.