Many individuals fortunate enough to be healthy in mind and body--and to be employed--lament the difficulties a workplace can impose. But for those with physical or mental disabilities, many workplaces can be truly daunting. Fortunately, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a fairly new federal law whose kinks are still being tested and interpreted by the courts, has helped to level the playing field.

What laws protect disabled workers from workplace discrimination?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of workers' disabilities. Generally, the ADA prohibits employers from:

  • discriminating on the basis of virtually any physical or mental disability
  • asking job applicants questions about their past or current medical conditions
  • requiring job applicants to take medical exams, and
  • creating or maintaining worksites that include substantial physical barriers to the movement of people with physical disabilities.
The ADA covers companies with 15 or more employees. Its coverage broadly extends to private employers, employment agencies and labor organizations. A precursor of the ADA, the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, prohibits discrimination against disabled workers in state and federal government.

In addition, many state laws protect against discrimination based on physical or mental disability.

Exactly whom does the ADA protect?

The ADA's protections extend to disabled workers--defined as people who:

  • have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity
  • have a record of impairment, or
  • are regarded as having an impairment.
An impairment includes physical disorders, such as cosmetic disfigurement or loss of a limb, as well as mental and psychological disorders.

The ADA protects job applicants and employees who, although disabled as defined above, are still qualified for a particular job. In other words, they would be able to perform the essential functions of a job with some form of accommodation, such as wheelchair access, a voice-activated computer or a customized workspace. As with other workers, whether a disabled worker is deemed qualified for a given job depends on whether he or she has appropriate skill, experience, training or education for the position.

How can I tell if a particular accommodation offered by my employer is reasonable?

The ADA points to several specific accommodations that are likely to be deemed reasonable--some of them changes to the physical set-up of the workplace, some of them changes to how or when work is done. They include:

  • making existing facilities usable by disabled employees--for example, by modifying the height of desks and equipment, installing computer screen magnifiers or installing telecommunications for the deaf
  • restructuring jobs--for example, allowing a ten-hour/four-day workweek so that a worker can receive weekly medical treatments
  • modifying exams and training materials--for example, allowing more time for taking an exam, or allowing it to be taken orally instead of in writing
  • providing a reasonable amount of additional unpaid leave for medical treatment
  • hiring readers or interpreters to assist an employee, and
  • providing temporary workplace specialists to assist in training.
These are just a few possible accommodations. The possibilities are limited only by an employee's and employer's imaginations--and the reality that might make one or more of these accommodations financially impossible in a particular workplace.

When can an employer legally claim that a particular accommodation is simply not feasible?

The ADA does not require employers to make accommodations that would cause them an undue hardship--a weighty concept defined in the ADA only as " an action requiring significant difficulty or expense."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, has set out some of the factors that will determine whether a particular accommodation presents an undue hardship on a particular employer. They include:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation
  • the financial resources of the employer (a large employer may be expected to foot a larger bill than a mom and pop business)
  • the nature of the business (including size, composition and structure of the workforce), and
  • accommodation costs already incurred in the workplace.
It is not easy for employers to prove that an accommodation is an undue hardship, as financial difficulty alone is not usually sufficient. Courts will look at other sources of money, including tax credits and deductions available for making some accommodations, as well as the disabled employee's willingness to pay for all or part of the costs.

How do I take action under the ADA?

The ADA is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). To start an investigation of your claim, file a complaint at the local EEOC office. Call (800) 669-4000 to find the office nearest you.

If you live in a state with laws that protect workers against discrimination based on physical or mental disability, you can choose to file a complaint under your state's law, the ADA or both.

More Information About
Disability Discrimination on the Job
President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities
1331 F Street, NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20004

Office of the Americans With Disabilities Act
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
P.O. Box 66118
Washington, DC 20035-6118

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