President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA is a comprehensive federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in employment based upon disability and guarantees access to public accommodations to individuals with disabilities.
Hundreds of ADA lawsuits are filed each year asserting violations of the ADA. As a result, it is imperative for employers to understand the ADA requires.
ADA in the Workplace
Title I of the ADA requires covered employers with 15 or more employees to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified individuals so that they can perform the essential functions of their jobs. Covered employers include private companies, state and local governments, employment contractors, non-profit organizations and labor organizations.
The measure makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment practices, such as:
- Job Assignments
- Training Leave
- And all other employment-related activities
Who is Protected by the ADA?
The law protects persons with disabilities due to a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, including but not limited to:
- Performing Manual Tasks
- Caring for Oneself
The ADA prohibits discrimination against a “qualified individual with a disability.” Under the ADA, a disability is defined as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” In addition, an employee can show a disability through a record of an actual disability, or they may be “regarded” as having a disability. Regarding as having a disability means a person is perceived as having a disability but does not actually have to have one. The ADA does not apply to minor or acute impairments such as a sprain, fracture or an infection.
Accordingly, under the law a person must also be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation. This means that the employee must satisfy the position’s requirements for education, work experience, licenses, specific skills and other qualifications and be able to perform those functions that are essential to the job.
What are Reasonable Accommodations?
Under the ADA, employers are usually required to make reasonable accommodations to help disabled employees perform their job duties. Several factors may go into determining what represents a reasonable accommodation, including: a change in the way employees are hired; a change in the way their jobs are performed; or a change in the employees’ work environment.
Under the ADA, an employer does not have to necessarily provide the employee with the accommodation of their choice, the employer and employee with a disability will engage in an interactive process to establish the specifics of the accommodation which will meet the employee’s unique needs – without imposing undue hardship for the employer.
The specifics of the accommodation will vary depending on the needs of the individual employee or applicant. There is a broad range of adjustment and modifications which can enable people with disabilities including, but not limited to, physical changes such as acquiring or modifying equipment; accessible and assistive technologies; accessible communications; changing tests, training materials or policies; and providing qualified readers or interpreters.
An employer, however, isn’t required to provide reasonable accommodations unless an individual with a disability makes a request. In cases where more than one accommodation would suffice, the employer may choose the option that is less expensive or easier to provide.
The employer further isn’t required to provide accommodations that imposes an “undue hardship” on the employer. Undue hardship is defined in the law as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense” when considered in light of other factors, such as an employer’s size, financial resources and structure of its operation.
Employee Medical Examinations, Inquiries and Confidentiality
Under the ADA, employers may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature or severity of a disability. Job applicants may be asked about their ability to perform specific job functions.
A job offer may be conditional on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required of all employees entering similar jobs. All medical exams of employees must be job-related and consistent with the employer’s needs.
Medical records are confidential, and with limited exceptions, employers must keep any medical information they may learn about an applicant or employee confidential.
Keep in mind that information can be confidential even if: 1) it does not contain a specific medical diagnosis or treatment options; and 2) even if it is not generated by a health care professional.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Employees and applicants currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs are not covered by the ADA when an employer acts on the basis of such use. Any tests screening for illegal drug use are not subject to the ADA’s restrictions or medical examinations. Employers may hold illegal drug and problematic alcohol users to the same performance, organizational and social standards as other employees.