Disability Discrimination Basics

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and more.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in many aspects of daily life. The ADA also requires reasonable accommodations to allow those with disabilities to work, access services, use public transportation, and more. 

ADA Coverage

The ADA prohibits discrimination in the following areas:

  • Title IEmployment. Employers cannot discriminate against qualified applicants and employees with disabilities. This part of the law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 
  • Title II: Public services. People with disabilities cannot be denied participation in public service programs or activities that are available to people without disabilities. Complaints under this title are made to the Justice Department.
  • Title IIIPublic accommodations. All new construction must be accessible to people with disabilities. Complaints under this title are made to the Justice Department.
  • Title IV: Telecommunications. Telecommunication companies must have a telephone relay service for people who use telecommunications devices for the deaf (TTYs) or similar devices. The Federal Communications Commission enforces this part of the law.
  • Title V: Miscellaneous. This title includes a provision prohibiting coercing, threatening, or retaliating against individuals with disabilities or those assisting them in asserting their rights under the ADA. This title also authorizes the payment of attorney’s fees for successful litigants.

ADA and Job Discrimination 

While the ADA provides broad protection for individuals with disabilities, the largest impact can be felt in the workplace. The ADA provides guidelines that many employers must follow to ensure that employees with disabilities are protected from discrimination. (The law applies to private employers with at least 15 employees; employers that are too small to be covered by the ADA may still be subject to a state or local law prohibiting disability discrimination.)

Covered employers may not discriminate against a qualified applicant during the hiring process because of a disability. A qualified applicant is someone who can perform the essential duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

The ADA also requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, including modifying equipment or making the workplace accessible to the employee. An accommodation is considered reasonable if the modification does not create an undue hardship for the employer. According to the ADA, an undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense for the employer. The court considers the financial resources of the company, the company's size, and the nature of its business when deciding whether an undue hardship exists.

What Is a Disability Under the ADA?

As amended by the ADA Amendments Act, the ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as walking, breathing, seeing, caring for oneself, learning, sleeping, and so on. The proper functioning of major bodily systems are also major life activities. For example, someone whose impairment disrupts normal cell growth, or the proper functioning of the endocrine, neurological, or gastrointestinal system, has a disability under the law, even if that person doesn't appear to be impaired. 

The ADA also protects those with a history of disability and those who are regarded by their employer as having a disability, even if the employer is incorrect. These provisions protect employees and applicants against discrimination based on stereotypes or misconceived notions about people with disabilities. For example, someone with a mild speech impediment may not have a disability, if that person is able to speak clearly and be understood. However, if an employer refused to hire that person based on the mistaken belief that the applicant would not be able to communicate effectively with others, that would be illegal disability discrimination. Even though the applicant didn't have an actual disability, the employer acted as though the applicant did. For more infoamtion, see our article on what counts as a disability under the ADA.

Filing a Lawsuit for an ADA Violation

To file a lawsuit based on a violation of the ADA in the workplace, you must first submit a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's fair employment practices agency (if your state also has a law prohibiting disability discrimination). The EEOC is a federal agency that interprets and enforces the laws prohibiting employment discrimination. The complaint may have to be filed within 180 days of the date of discrimination; in some states, the deadline is longer.

The EEOC has the right to investigate your claims, try to get your employer to settle the dispute, or even sue on your behalf. Once the agency has finished processing your complaint, you will receive a "right to sue" letter. You must wait until you have a right to sue letter to go forward with your own civil lawsuit. A right to sue letter means that the government is not going to proceed on your behalf, and you are free to pursue the claim of discrimination on your own.

Getting Legal Help

If you think you have been discriminated against because of your disability, consult a lawyer who specializes in disability law. A lawyer can assess the strength of your case and help you decide the best strategy for moving forward, inlcuding filing a lawsuit for violation of your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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