Prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), discrimination in hiring, firing, and workplace conditions against the disabled occurred daily. This discrimination happened in a widespread manner despite the fact that many persons with disabilities have a working functionality. Disabilities are commonplace across the United States. According to the 2011 American Community Survey, 37.3 million people in the country live with disabilities. Of the working-age population, one-in-ten people between the ages of 21 and 64 suffer from a disability. Many of these disabled citizens find regular work on a daily basis.
Under federal employment law, all qualified persons with a disability who are able to work have a right to work and not be discriminated against in the workplace. The ADA protects disabled persons from workplace discrimination in many different ways as the following article describes. If you suffer from a disability, it is important for you to understand your rights so that you can remain competitive in the workforce and fight against a form of workplace discrimination that is far too common.
Coverage under the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA generally protects disabled workers from discrimination by making discrimination in the workplace against actual, recorded, or perceived disabilities and by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. There are three important components to coverage under the ADA:
- the definition of disability;
- the types of discrimination prevented;
- the extent of disability protections.
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Under the 2008 amendments to the ADA, disability is defined as a condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The law lists specific examples of major life activities, including caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. The law also lists major bodily functions that are deemed major life activities, including, but not limited to, functions of the immune system; normal cell growth; and digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. If an employee or job applicant is limited in regard to the performance of a major life activity, that person is disabled.
The ADA prevents three types of discrimination related to disabled persons. First, the ADA protects anyone who is actually disabled and cannot perform certain major life activities. Second, the ADA protects persons with prior records of having disabilities without regard to whether that person is still disabled or capable of performing work. Finally, the ADA also protects against discrimination from people who are perceived by an employer to have a disability. It is also important to note the extent of these disability protections. The ADA does not protect all disabled people. People who are actually unable to work are not protected. The ADA covers two distinct groups of disabled persons: those who are disabled but can work and those who are disabled but can work with a reasonable accommodation.
The Nature of a Reasonable Accommodation
The ADA provides broad coverage prohibiting discrimination against employees or job applicants who have a disability that will not prevent them from performing their jobs (such as a construction worker with dyslexia). However, the ADA also protects individuals whose disabilities would impair their ability to work without some type of assistance from their employer. Disabled employees who fall into the category of needing some minimal level of help are qualified to receive reasonable accommodations from their employers. For example, a secretary that has developed a debilitating case of carpal tunnel syndrome might be entitled to a specialized computer keyboard, or an employee who used to lift heavy objects regularly prior to a major back surgery might be entitled to reassignment to a less strenuous position. The purpose of requiring employers to provide these accommodations under the ADA is that it allows disabled persons to continue working even if it causes the employer some minor inconvenience.
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The underlying notion of a reasonable accommodation implies that whatever accommodation the employer is asked to provide is reasonable. In general, a wide variety of accommodations are considered reasonable under the ADA; however, the limiting factor is the impact such an accommodation may have on an employer. Under the ADA, if forcing an employer to provide an accommodation would place an undue burden on that employer, then it is not required to provide that accommodation.
Finally, the employee must take appropriate steps to notify his or her employer about the need for a reasonable accommodation. An employee with a bad back cannot continue to work a strenuous lifting job acting like everything is fine and then sue his or her employer for not providing an accommodation where the employer did not know one was needed. There are some narrow exceptions to this rule where the employee’s disability is obvious (such as where the employee is confined to a wheelchair). If an employee’s disability is readily noticeable, the employer must accommodate what he or she can readily observe, but an employer has no requirement to accommodate hidden disabilities of which it is not aware. Disabled employees must make certain that they communicate their needs to their employers as soon as they arise.
The Right to Sue
Finally, persons covered under the ADA have a right to sue for any discrimination that they suffer in the workplace. Regardless of whether an employer is actively discriminating against a disabled worker or the employer has simply failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, the covered employee or job applicant may bring a case before the federal EEOC or a state employment agency.
If you believe that you have been discriminated against in the workplace due to your disability or have not received a reasonable accommodation after requesting one, you have a right to sue. The Law Offices of Yuriy Moshes is a full-service employment law firm that specializes in offering white-glove customer services to its clients. We provide free initial consultations to all victims of employment discrimination.