The Americans with Disabilities Act

Thankfully, over the last few decades, the government has provided for individuals with disabilities through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What is ADA? The federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against someone with a disability. This law took effect on July 26, 1992, for companies with 25 or more employees, and July 26, 1994, for companies with 15 or more employees.

What Qualifies as a Disability?
A disability is a substantial physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities such as walking, breathing, hearing, seeing or learning. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and HIV infection are considered disabilities.

Even if you don’t have a current disability, but had one in the past, you are protected by the ADA. In other words, if an employer finds out you had cancer, it can’t refuse to hire you simply because it is fearful its insurance costs will go up.

You are also protected if you are associated with someone who has or has had a disability or is regarded as having or having had a disability. For instance, if your spouse or housemate has been diagnosed with AIDS, or if you work as a volunteer with people with AIDS, your employer cannot fire you simply for fear that insurance costs will go up, or because he fears the disease and associates you with it.

The ADA also covers rehabilitated drug addicts and alcoholics who remain qualified to do their jobs. In some cases obesity is covered by the ADA, but obesity claims are considered on a case-by-case basis.

The ADA does not protect pregnant women (though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does) or current users of illegal drugs. Short-term medical disabilities such as a broken arm are not covered.

How It Works in Practice

The ADA generally prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of a disability.

  • An employer may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature or severity of a disability; a job offer may be conditioned on the results of a medical exam, but only if the exam is required of all entering employees and the results of the medical exam indicate that the applicant is not qualified for the job.
  • An employer may ask applicants about their ability to perform specific job functions
  • An employer can refuse to make an accommodation or refuse to hire a person requiring it only if the expense or difficulty of providing the accommodation would cause an undue hardship to the employer.
  • The business is free to make its decision within ADA guidelines, but workers can challenge the decision.
  • An employer can also refuse to hire a disabled person if the employer cannot eliminate or reduce the risk of substantial harm by reasonable accommodation; for instance, if the person would be required to work with a certain piece of machinery that’s unsafe for him to operate as is and can’t be modified.

Remember that employers can accommodate people with disabilities through any of the following means:

  • Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.
  • Restructuring jobs, modifying work schedules, or reassigning vacant positions.
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies, and providing readers or interpreters.


If you think you have been discriminated against because of a disability, you can file a complaint with the EEOC. For a more complete list of provisions, contact the EEOC (1801 L St., N.W., Washington, DC 20507; 202?663?4001) or your local EEOC.

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