The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed under President George H.W. Bush in 1990 has become arguably the most sweeping piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA included a number of provisions that improved the lives of people with disabilities, especially in the area of employment discrimination.
Interpretation of the ADA breaks down into seven important pieces of the law.
The ADA establishes clear rules for what can be considered a disability. To qualify as disabled, a person must meet one of three criteria:
- Their condition substantially inhibits a major life function, such as walking, talking, etc.
- They have a history of disability, even if the disability is not currently present, i.e. cancer in a period of remission
- The person has a long-term condition (expected to last more than six months) that is not a minor impairment
If an employee meets the definition of disability and is qualified for the job, he or she is protected by the ADA.
According to the ADA, employers may not discriminate on any aspect of a job. The protection under the ADA begins as soon as a person applies for a job and lasts until the termination of that person’s employment.
To comply with ADA guidelines, employers may not:
- Exclude people with disabilities from job assignments
- Fail to consider employees with disabilities for promotion or raises
- Prioritize employees with disabilities during a layoff
- Pay employees with disabilities less than other staff members
3. Interviews and Employment
Federal law has very strict regulations about what an employer can ask an applicant during the interview process. Questions about medical history and medical conditions are generally forbidden, but employers may ask questions about whether an employee can meet the minimum requirements of the job with reasonable accommodation.
The exception to the rule is when employers require all new employees to pass a medical exam before beginning their job. Because the exam is given to everyone in the organization, employees with disabilities are not being singled out, and the request does not qualify as discrimination.
Avoiding outright discrimination in hiring or job placement is only a part of an employer’s duty to meet the rules of the ADA. A second and more difficult rule to enforce is the prohibition against harassment.
In general, employers are required to address issues that create a hostile work environment for people with disabilities. Isolated incidents or mean comments are not considered harassment, but if the employee complains about a situation and the employer does nothing about it, the situation may escalate to harassment. The issue for employers is that they must control instances of harassment from their staff, as well as vendors, clients, or customers who come in contact with an employee with a disability.
Failure to address claims of harassment has serious legal ramifications for employers. The victim of the harassment may file a lawsuit, which could potentially cost the employer a substantial sum of money.
5. Reasonable Accommodation
Employees with disabilities may need special accommodation to perform the same job duties as their co-workers. Under the ADA, employers must offer reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities, such as offering wheelchair access to the employee areas of the building, modifying work schedules, purchasing special equipment, or changing policies. Employees who need accommodations must make the nature of the workplace barrier clear to their employer, and explain solutions to overcome the issue.
Key to the issue of reasonable accommodation is the distinction between essential and marginal job functions. Essential functions are those directly related to the core of the job description, and all employees must be able to perform those tasks with reasonable accommodation. Marginal tasks are those that are somewhat related to the job, but are not essential to the job at hand. For example, the ability to operate a cash register is an essential job function of a cashier, but lifting 50-pound bags may be considered a marginal function. When possible, employers can restructure jobs to shift marginal job functions between employees to meet the accommodation needs of an employee with disabilities. Otherwise it may be necessary to remove the non-essential tasks.
6. Undue Hardship
Employers may refuse to provide an accommodation if it causes an undue hardship. There are many reasons why an accommodation would be an undue hardship, including:
- Cost of new equipment for the employee
- Cost of renovating a building or layout
- Extreme strain on the financial resources of a company
An employer cannot refuse an accommodation simply because there is some cost involved, but if the cost is too high or disruptive, the refusal may stand.
Employers also have the right to provide whichever method of accommodation they want, as long as it meets the employee’s needs.
Employers who are found guilty of violations of the ADA face stiff penalties. Victims may be able to claim lost wages and back pay from missed promotions or lost jobs, in addition to attorney’s fees and court costs.
More punishing for employers are the potential non-economic damages, namely awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. The legal limits on non-economic damages can be quite high, and an employee who wins a discrimination case may receive a very large settlement.
Legal Implications of these Issues
Due to the strict federal regulations, it is essential that employers and managers from all industries understand these guidelines for disability discrimination. In particular, Human Relations (HR) managers and departments should have a very in-depth understanding of these regulations as they will be the ones largely responsible for making sure that their businesses acting within federal laws and regulations.
Despite some criticism of the law, the ADA has been expanded several times and continues to be an influential piece of legislation. The protections established under the ADA are essential to guarding the rights of disabled Americans, and will continue to play a role in fair workplace practices.
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