October is The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Awareness Month. For those of you who are not familiar with this act, the ADA prevents discrimination in employment against qualified individuals with disabilities. The act became a law in 1990 with amendments occurring as recently as 2008. Employers subject to this law include: private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and labor-management committees.
So what is a “disability?” According to the ADA, an individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity qualifies as a person with a disability. Major life activities that may be restricted include: hearing, seeing, speaking, thinking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning, and working. The ADA stipulates that the impairment must be substantial rather than minor in order to be protected under this act.
What employment activities are covered under the ADA? The ADA protects against discrimination during ALL employment practices including: recruitment, firing, hiring, training, job assignments, promotions, pay, benefits, lay off, leave, and all other employment-related activities. A key point to understand is that an individual must be able to perform the job he/she wants or was hired to do, with or without reasonable accommodation. In other words, if you possess a job that required a certain degree of manual work, but an injury restricts you from performing any of your previous essential job requirements (those listed out as requirements for the position) despite reasonable accommodation, then your employer is not legally required to keep you in said position.
What is “reasonable accommodation?” The “accommodation” portion of this phrase refers to a change/adjustment to a job, work environment, or the way things are typically done in order to allow a person with disabilities to apply for a job, perform a job function, or have equal access to benefits that other co-workers share. The “reasonable” portion of the phrase refers to the degree of adjustment in order to accommodate an individual with a disability. If an employer can show that the needed accommodations for an applicant or employee would cause on undue hardship (require significant difficulty or expense), then the employer is not bound by law to make the accommodations. Some examples of reasonable accommodations include:
- Providing/modifying equipment or devices (ex. computer software for those with visual impairments or those who have difficulty using their hands)
- Job restructuring
- Part-time or modified work schedules
- Reassignment to a vacant position
- Adjusting/modifying examinations, training materials, or policies (ex. Braille, audio tape, or computer disk format)
- Providing readers and interpreters
- Making the workplace readily accessible and usable by people with disabilities (ex. installing a ramp, modifying the workplace or restroom, adjusting desk height)
- Time off for individuals who need treatment for their disabilities
One important thing to note is that an employer is not permitted to ask about a disability, the nature of a disability, or the severity of a disability prior to employment. The employer is permitted to ask questions about an individual’s ability to perform a specific job function and may ask an individual to describe or demonstrate how he/she would complete the activity. An employer also cannot ask or require a job applicant to take a medical examination before making a job offer. He/she may place a condition on a job offer pending a post-offer medical examination, but only if this is required of all employees entering the same job category. The results of the post-offer medical screen may not disqualify an individual with a disability who is able to currently perform the essential functions of the job offered regardless of speculation of future risk/injury. If, however, the medical screening determines that the individual’s current functional abilities limit performance of essential job functions or would cause possible harm to self or others despite reasonable accommodations, then he/she can be legally refused the position.
If you are a person with a disability, it is important to understand your rights. Familiarize yourself with ADA regulations in order to be best equipped for the job market. For more extensive information on ADA regulations, please refer to the resources listed below.