Since 1990, applicants and employees have been protected from disability discrimination on the job by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law was strengthened in 2008, when Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). One of the purposes of the ADAAA was to expand the reach of the law, so more people can enjoy its protections. However, the ADA doesn't apply to all employees or to all employers. If you aren't protected by the ADA, you may be covered by a state disability discrimination law.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA prohibits job discrimination against employees or applicants with disabilities. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations that will allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. However, it doesn't protect everyone.
Who Does the Law Cover?
Only these employers must comply with the ADA's employment provisions:
- private employers with at least 15 employees
- employment agencies
- labor organizations
- joint labor/management committees, and
- local governments.
Federal employees aren't covered by the ADA, but they are protected by a similar law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. State employees are in a unique situation: Although their employers are required to follow the ADA, these employees can't sue for money damages. State employees may sue only for injunctive relief: to ask the court to require the state to take some action or stop doing something (for example, to stop using a particular entrance exam).
If you work or apply for a job with an employer with fewer than 15 employees, you might be protected by a state law prohibiting discrimination, as explained below.
What's a Disability?
Under the ADA, a disability is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, sitting, standing, reaching, lifting, learning, or caring for oneself. Major bodily processes also count as major life activities, including the proper functioning of the body's endocrine, digestive, reproductive, or neurological systems.
Qualified Individual with a Disability
To be protected by the ADA, you must be qualified for the position. This means both that you must meet the requirements of the job (such as having the proper educational degree, licenses, and job experience) and that you must be able to perform the job's essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Essential functions are the fundamental duties of the job; for more information, see Americans with Disabilities Act: What Are Essential Functions of a Job?
A reasonable accommodation is a change to the job or the workplace that will enable an employee with a disability to perform a job. For example, an employer might lower the height of desktops and widen a doorway as a reasonable accommodation for an employee who uses a wheelchair. Or, an employer might provide an interpreter for an employee who has a hearing impairment and is unable to lip read during large meetings.
An employer need not provide an accommodation if it creates an undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the accommodation's cost, the size and financial resources of the business, the structure of the business, and the effect the accommodation would have on the business.
State Disability Discrimination Laws
Virtually every state has its own law prohibiting employment discrimination, and most states prohibit disability discrimination. These laws often apply to smaller employers, sometimes even to employers that have only one employee. What each state requires and prohibits varies, as does how state law defines "disability" and other important concepts. For information on your state's disability discrimination law, contact your state fair employment practices agency.
Getting Legal Help
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of a disability, consider consulting with an experienced attorney. An attorney can help you evaluate your situation and decide what to do. If you want to file a lawsuit, you will have to first file a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state's fair employment practices agency. There are strict time limits you must observe for filing a charge, and later filing a lawsuit. An attorney can make sure that you've taken every necessary step to preserve your legal rights.