Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Americans with Disabilities Act: An Overview

It is difficult to think of legislation passed over the past twenty-five years that has affected the workplace more than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, and amended in 2008, the ADA prohibits discrimination against a person because of a disability. This applies to private employers with fifteen or more employees, as well as federal, state, and local governments. The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against “a qualified individual with a disability.” A person is considered disabled if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. This includes serious physical and mental handicaps, like paralysis, missing limbs, lack of hearing or vision, speech impediments, or cognitive disabilities. It also includes illnesses, like cancer, HIV, or multiple sclerosis. Mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia are covered as well. A disability does not have to be permanent; temporary impairments, like a broken bone or the flu, are also covered under the ADA.

The disability must substantially limit a major life activity in order for an individual to be considered disabled under the ADA. Major life activities include working, caring for oneself, and interacting with others. The ADA does not apply to behavior disorders that cause a person to engage in criminal activity. For example, pedophilia, kleptomania, pyromania, compulsive gambling, and drug or alcohol abuse are not considered disabilities. It also does not apply to sexual orientation or gender identity.

The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because of his disabilities. This means that any adverse action against an employee because of his disability, whether it is in regards to job application procedures, hiring, job training, firing, or any other condition of employment, will be a violation of the ADA. Furthermore, the ADA requires an employer to make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled employees. This requires an employer to make an adaptation to the workplace to allow a disabled employee to work. For example, bathrooms that can be used by someone in a wheelchair would be a reasonable accommodation. An employer, however, does not need to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so would be an “undue hardship.” An “undue hardship” is an accommodation that would require significant difficulty or expense on the employer. For example, if the cost of making a facility accessible for an employee in a wheelchair was so high that it would force the employer to go out of business, this would be considered an undue hardship. There is no precise definition of “reasonable accommodation” or “undue hardship.” Instead, courts determine these on a case-by-case basis.

Employers are also prohibited from retaliating against an employee for exercising his rights under the ADA. For example, an employer may not fire or punish a disabled employee who asks the employer to change the workplace to accommodate his disability.

If an employer discriminates against an employee due to his disability, or fails to make a reasonable accommodation, the employee may sue the employer. The employee may recover lost wages, compensation for damages resulting from the discrimination, and reinstatement to his job. He can also require the employer to make changes to the workplace to allow him to work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also may bring a lawsuit against employers who discriminate against disabled employees or do not make their workplaces accessible for the disabled.

Ultimately, every employer must be familiar with the ADA. Lawsuits for violations of the ADA are one of the most common types of employment litigation, with employers often not even realizing that they were in violation of the Act. Consult an attorney to ensure that your workplace is ADA compliant.