What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act is a groundbreaking law that made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their disability or the belief that they are disabled.

The law directly led to increased access for those who use a wheelchair, need Braille to read or a teletype service to communicate over the phone. It also led to numerous changes for employers, such as the way that they make personnel decisions or offer accommodations to their employees.

According to the ADA, a disability is considered a condition that limits a standard life activity such as talking, walking, seeing, hearing or learning. The disability could be something that a person is born with or it could be something they acquired. For example, a student who was born deaf or a nurse who injured her back at work can both be considered disabled.

What does the Americans with Disabilities Act mean for employers?

The ADA is designed to apply to all aspects of public life. Companies that fall under the law must provide “reasonable” accommodations to those with disabilities. For example, a shopping mall must provide wheelchair ramps for customers who cannot climb stairs to an entrance.

In addition to physical and sensory accommodations, employers with 15 or more employees must also consider the ADA when it comes to hiring, firing, retaining employees and situations involving taking a leave of absence from work.

The ADA and personnel decisions

Before the hiring process begins, a company should make sure that prospective employees are fully able to access information about the company, as well as able to physically access its facilities, despite any disability.

Next, the ADA should be taken into consideration during the interviewing process. The candidate should first and foremost be someone who is a qualified person, meaning they have the ability, expertise, education, or otherwise meets the demands of an employment position that they are applying for. Also, they should be able to carry out the ‘essential functions’ of the position, with reasonable accommodation if necessary.

Importantly, a person with a disability cannot be deemed unqualified simply due to an inability to do secondary job functions. If the person is qualified to execute the main job functions aside from limitations as a result of a disability, the company must determine if the person could execute these functions with a reasonable accommodation for that disability.

Reasonable accommodations are considered steps that an employer can take to remove barriers for a person with a disability. A reasonable accommodation does not include eliminating one of the main responsibilities of the job or lowering production standards, as this would mean that the person is unqualified. Also, an accommodation is not reasonable if it would cause “undue hardship” on a business. For example, a company does not have to go bankrupt installing an elevator so an employee in a wheelchair can access a second floor.

During the interview process, it is illegal to ask a person if they are disabled or about the nature of an obvious disability. It is also illegal to make an applicant undergo a medical exam before an initial offer. The employer can require a medical exam after an initial offer is made, but only if that exam is a standard part of the process that every candidate must go through, not just those suspected of having a disability.

Employers should also not base their hiring on the belief that a person may be a high risk for making disability or workers’ compensation claims, as this is illegal.

Taking Leave due to a disability

While taking leave from work is generally thought of as falling under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), work leave can also fall under the ADA, as leave would be considered a reasonable accommodation under the latter.

The FMLA grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month period, but under the ADA there is no limit. Since work leave under the ADA is considered an accommodation, the amount of leave allowed is based on the job description and disability.

The one limiting factor an employer has is the potential for leave to create an “undue hardship.” The ADA National Network has warned that employers often find it challenging to prove that a work leave situation has caused an undue hardship.

When a situation arises where an employee needs leave under the ADA, an employer is allowed to ask for medical documentation so it can determine how to structure the accommodation. The documentation should describe only the disability and how it relates to the job description. Any medical documentation should be kept private and separate from an employee’s other records at the company or organization.

What are some misconceptions about the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the ADA have to do with hiring people who are unqualified. If a person with a disability does not meet the requirements as described in a job description, they should not be hired. Likewise, a person with a disability does not get preference over a non-disabled person when it comes to hiring.

Another misconception about the ADA is that it places an undue financial hardship on businesses that must accommodate for an employee’s disability. However, a study by the Department of Labor found that 57 percent of accommodations cost nothing, and the rest typically cost around $500.

A third major misconception about the ADA is that is encouraged false or exaggerated claims. Indeed, some of these types of claims are filed, but these claims are “usually dismissed,” according to the Department of Labor.

Finally, a person with a disability can be legally fired by their employers if the termination doesn’t relate to the disability, the employee is not or no longer qualified, or the disability poses a safety or health risk to the person themselves or their co-workers.

Employers need to know what the Americans with Disabilities Act is in order to follow it properly and avoid disputes. Properly adhering to the law typically costs very little and can lead to a more diverse workforce.