The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their disabilities. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow applicants and employees with disabilities to apply for and do their jobs.
Whether it is illegal for an employer to reject a job applicant who uses a wheelchair depends on the reasons for the employer's decision. If the employer rejected the applicant because of his or her disability, that would be discriminatory -- if the applicant could perform the job's essential functions. However, if the employer simply chose the best qualified candidate, that would not constitute illegal discrimination.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities: physical or mental impairments that significantly limit at least one major life activity. Major life activities include those activities that are important to daily life, such as walking, eating, caring for oneself, breathing, seeing, and so on. Also included are major bodily functions, such as the proper functioning of the neurological, endocrine, or reproductive systems, as well as proper cell growth.
Courts tend not to rigidly classify certain ailments as disabilities. Instead, it depends on how the applicant's condition is affecting his or her abilities. However, both Congress and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing the ADA, have said that the law should be interpreted broadly, to protect as many people as possible from discrimination.
There are many reasons why someone might be using a wheelchair, including disease, paralysis, muscle weakness, and so on. Generally speaking, however, a person uses a wheelchair precisely because he or she is substantially limited in the ability to walk. Unless someone is using a wheelchair on a very temporary basis for a temporary condition, it's almost certain that person has a disability covered by the ADA.
The ADA prohibits disability discrimination, but it doesn't guarantee jobs to those with disabilities. Instead, it protects qualified applicants with disabilities. In other words, a person with a disability must possess the necessary licenses, degrees, experience, and skills for the position. An employer who turns down an applicant because he or she lacks the necessary advanced educational degree for the job is not guilty of disability discrimination.
An applicant must also be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Essential functions are those job duties that are absolutely necessary to the position. For example, a bagger at a grocery store might have physical job requirements, such as the ability to lift a certain amount of weight. An administrative assistant might need to be proficient at certain word processing, spreadsheet, and other computer programs. A counter person at a coffee shop would need good customer service skills, the ability to make change, and the ability to quickly take and prepare customer orders.
An employer may not simply assume that an applicant with an obvious disability cannot perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may ask the applicant to review a list of essential functions and ask whether the applicant can perform them. An employer may also ask the applicant to demonstrate how he or she would perform those functions.
As noted above, an applicant must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is a change -- to application procedures, job structure, the physical layout of the workplace, and so on -- that will allow a person with a disability to do the job. For example, a person using a wheelchair might need a desktop raised or lowered to accommodate his chair. Or, a person with a disability that limits use of her hands might need voice recognition software to use a computer quickly and efficiently.
A reasonable accommodation might also be required for the application and interview process. To take an obvious example, an eminently qualified applicant should not be taken out of the running for a job simply because the doorway to the interview room is too narrow to accommodate his or her wheelchair. Similarly, if a company requires applicants to take a test, the company should offer reasonable accommodations if necessary.
An accommodation is not reasonable if it poses an undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, considering the employer's size and resources.
So, is it illegal for an employer not to hire someone who uses a wheelchair? As you can see, the answer depends on a lot of facts. If the person was otherwise qualified for the job and the employer's rejection was based solely on the applicant's disability, that could well be illegal discrimination. On the other hand, if the person lacked the necessary experience, couldn't perform the job's essential functions even with a reasonable accommodation, or simply was not the best candidate for the job, that likely is not disability discrimination.
In the real world, applicants who are turned down for jobs are unlikely to know the full story. Few employers announce their reasoning in a job interview; fewer still admit that they are making discriminatory decisions. If you are turned down for a job and you believe the employer's decision was based on your disability, you should talk to a lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you decide how to proceed and help you protect your rights.