The Americans with Disabilities Act Protects Qualified Individuals

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it would not impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. Employers may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability.

To understand several important ADA definitions, including who is protected by the law and what constitutes illegal discrimination, the following are some helpful explanations of key definitions to assist in determining classifications:

Individual with a Disability

An individual with a disability under the ADA is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that the determination of whether a person has an ADA “disability” includes consideration of whether the person is substantially limited in performing a major life activity when using a mitigating measure. This means that if a person has little or no difficulty performing any major life activity because they use a mitigating measure, then that person will not meet the ADA’s first definition of “disability”. Major life activities are activities that an average person can perform with little or no difficulty such as walking, breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning and working. The ADA also protects individuals who have a record of a substantially limiting impairment, and people who are regarded as having a substantially limiting impairment.

Qualified Individual with a Disability

A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is someone who satisfies skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the position held or desired, and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of that position.

Reasonable Accommodation

Reasonable accommodation may include, but is not limited to: making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities; job restructuring; modification of work schedules; providing additional unpaid leave; reassignment to a vacant position; acquiring or modifying equipment or devices; adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies; and providing qualified readers or interpreters.

Reasonable accommodation may be necessary to apply for a job, to perform job functions, or to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment that are enjoyed by people without disabilities. An employer is not required to lower production standards to make an accommodation. An employer generally is not obligated to provide personal use items such as eyeglasses or hearing aids.

Prohibited Inquiries and Examinations

Before making an offer of employment, an employer may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability. Applicants may be asked about their ability to perform job functions. A job offer may be contingent on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required for all entering employees in the same job category. Medical examinations of employees must be job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Undue Hardship

This is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer’s size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of its operation. An employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation.

Under the ADA, performing essential functions are defined as the basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer needs to examine each job to determine which functions or tasks are essential to performance prior to taking any employment action such as recruiting, advertising, hiring, promoting or firing.

In determining if a function is essential en employer needs to consider whether the reason the position exists is to perform that function, the number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the performance of the function could be distributed, and the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function. An employer’s determination as to which functions are essential include the actual work, the experience of present or past employees in the job, the time spent performing a function and the consequences of not requiring that an employee perform a function. A job offer may be conditioned on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required for all entering employees in similar jobs. Medical examinations of employees must be job related and consistent with the employer’s business needs.

It is unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on any disability or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADA. In 2004, the EEOC received 15,376 charges of disability discrimination. The EEOC resolved 16,949 disability discrimination charges 2004 and recovered $47.7 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals. Of that $47.7 million, approximately 13% was for mental health discrimination cases. This does not include monetary benefits obtained through litigation.

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