What Job Seekers and Employees Should Know About the ADA

What Job Seekers and Employees Should Know About the ADA

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

If you are an individual with a disability, it's important to familiarize yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADA). This law is divided into five "Titles," each of which addresses a different type of entity to which the legislation applies. Specifically:

  • Title I: focuses on Employment.
  • Title II: focuses on Public Services.
  • Title III: focuses on Public Accommodations.
  • Title IV: focuses on Telecommunications.
  • Title V: focuses on Miscellaneous issues.

How is "Disability" Defined?

The ADA defines "disability" in general terms rather than providing a list of medical conditions. Specifically, a person has a disability if a mental or physical impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities. These include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, standing, lifting, seeing, hearing, speaking, reading, breathing, learning, working, thinking, concentrating, and interacting with other people.

The ADA also provides protection to people:

  • With a history of such an impairment (for example, someone who has recovered from cancer); and
  • Who are regarded as disabled, either by themselves or others, but whose major life activities are limited only as a result of the attitudes and reactions of others toward the impairment (for example, someone who stutters or has a prominent scar).

Who Does Title I Protect?

Title I protects "qualified" individuals with disabilities from discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees. This includes all areas of employment, including recruitment, training, pay, benefits, and promotion. A person who meets education, experience, skills, and other job-related requirements, and can perform essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation, is considered qualified. The concept of reasonable accommodation will be explained shortly.

Title I also protects against harassment, as well as retaliation for asserting your rights under the ADA.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the ADA's Title I provisions. Protection from disability discrimination in employment is also provided at the state level.

What is an Essential Job Function?

Essential job functions are tasks that are fundamental to a position; in other words, the job exists to perform those very duties. Marginal job functions, on the other hand, are more minor or incidental in nature and can easily be performed by another employee.

A chef's essential job functions, for example, relate directly to cooking meals for restaurant patrons, while her marginal functions may include carrying large bottles of olive oil up from the basement. Individuals who can perform the necessary cooking duties, either on their own or with the help of a reasonable accommodation, and also meet other job-related requirements, are "qualified" to be a chef.

An employer can only refuse to hire an applicant if he is unable to perform all essential functions of the job, even with reasonable accommodation. The fact that the chef in the previous example is unable to climb stairs to retrieve items has no bearing on whether she is qualified for the position. As a result, she cannot be rejected on that basis.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

An "accommodation" is any modification or adjustment to the job or work environment that would allow a qualified employee to perform the essential functions of his job, or a qualified applicant to participate in the hiring process. An assembly line worker, for instance, may need to perform his duties sitting on a tall stool rather than standing due to a disability. In this situation, providing the stool is an accommodation. Engaging a sign language interpreter when interviewing a job applicant with a hearing impairment is another type of accommodation.

The ADA requires employers to provide and pay for reasonable accommodations that would allow an individual to perform his essential job functions. This means that the accommodations shouldn't pose undue hardship on the employer by being unduly costly, disruptive, or difficult to implement.

If an individual finds it difficult to perform a marginal job function due to a disability, an employer may choose to provide a reasonable accommodation for that as well, or not require it as part of the person's duties. In the case of the chef mentioned earlier, her employer may choose to install a mechanical stairlift so that she can bring items up from the basement herself, or simply re-assign the task to someone else.

Read Understanding Reasonable Accommodations for People with Disabilities for more information.

Does the ADA Also Offer Protection During the Job Search Process?

Yes. Employers are required to provide job applicants with reasonable accommodations. As mentioned earlier, a sign language interpreter is a reasonable accommodation for a job applicant with a hearing disability. Here are some additional examples:  

  • Interviews must be held in locations accessible to individuals with mobility disabilities.
  • Written materials must be made available in alternative formats, such as large-print, Braille, or audiotape, for job applicants with visual impairments.
  • Tests and application procedures must also be modified as appropriate. For instance, if the application process for a veterinary assistant includes a computer-based test, a job applicant who has difficulty using a keyboard must have the option of taking the test in an alternate format. Because the test is designed to measure applicants' knowledge of animal care, and not their keyboarding skills, the employer must be willing to use a different testing method for individuals with disabilities.
  • Employers are prohibited from asking disability-related questions when conducting job interviews. This issue will be explored in depth in a future post.

Does the ADA Provide Special Privileges or Unfair Advantages to People with Disabilities?

No. The intent of the ADA is to give equal employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities – to "level the playing field," so to speak. It does not guarantee them jobs or eliminate their need to compete against other job seekers, nor does it require employers to set lower production and performance standards for them because they have disabilities (although some may choose to do so as a reasonable accommodation).

Additionally, despite common misconceptions, the ADA is NOT an affirmative action statute that imposes quotas. Employers are not required to hire job applicants with disabilities over applicants without disabilities who are equally or more qualified. However, they ARE expected to hire an individual with a disability if he is, in fact, the most qualified applicant. When making this determination, employers must assess how the person would perform with the needed accommodation. The cost or difficulty of implementing the accommodation CANNOT factor into the hiring decision.

Does the ADA Require That I Disclose My Disability to an Employer?

No. Whether to tell an employer about your disability during the hiring process, once you are on-the-job, or not at all, is entirely your choice.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that disclosure is necessary for you to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation. Disclosure would also prevent an employer from unknowingly discriminating against you for a disability-related reason. If an employer is unaware of your partial hearing loss, for example, your repeated failure to answer a ringing telephone might be handled as a disciplinary problem, particularly if doing so is an essential job function. Had you disclosed your disability, the employer could have provided you with a reasonable accommodation, such as a telephone that visually indicates when someone is calling.

Furthermore, new regulations mandate that certain federal contractors and subcontractors take active and documented steps toward a 7% participation rate of employees with disabilities in their workplaces. As a result, you can be assured that these employers will welcome and support your disclosure.

Do You Want to Learn More?

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