If you have a disability and are searching for a job, you should know how the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you in the hiring process. The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees and job applicants with disabilities. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for your disabilities—even during the application process (42 U.S.C. § 12112(a)).
Whether it's illegal for an employer to reject a job applicant with a disability depends on the reasons for the employer's decision. If you can do the job, it's illegal for an employer to choose not to hire you because you use a wheelchair or have another disability. But it's not unlawful for an employer to hire the best-qualified candidate—even if that's someone with no disabilities.
Below, we explain who the ADA protects, how the law works, and some common issues that might come up for job applicants with disabilities.
The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees. Smaller employers aren't required to comply with ADA rules. (But your state might have a law that applies to smaller employers.)
And the ADA only protects you if both of the following are true:
The ADA doesn't have a list of particular diseases or conditions that "automatically" qualify as disabilities. Instead, the law looks at how your impairment affects your ability to function.
You have a disability under the ADA if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits your major life activities, such as:
For example, there are many reasons why someone might use a wheelchair, including illnesses and injuries. But under the ADA, the reason you use a wheelchair is less important than the fact that you're substantially limited in your ability to walk—a major life activity. Unless it's on a very temporary basis, having a condition that keeps you from walking meets the ADA's definition of disability.
Both Congress and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing the ADA, have said that the ADA is intended to protect as many people as possible from discrimination and that it should be interpreted broadly (42 U.S.C. § 12101 (note)).
(Learn more about how the ADA defines disabilities.)
The ADA doesn't require employers to hire applicants with disabilities. Instead, it prohibits discrimination against qualified applicants with disabilities. If you're qualified for the job, an employer can't choose to not hire you simply because you have a disability.
You're qualified for a job if you meet the job requirements, such as education, licensing, experience, and skills (fluency in a foreign language, for example).
An employer isn't obligated to consider your application if you don't meet the hiring criteria and you can't do the essential functions of the job.
You must be able to perform the job's "essential functions." Essential functions are the fundamental duties of the job—not the extra tasks an employee does that aren't directly related to the position. For example, a package delivery driver must be able to lift boxes.
An employer isn't required to take away an essential function of a position so you can do the job, even if you have a disability. You must be able to do the primary job duties of the position for which you're applying, with or without a reasonable accommodation. An employer does have to work with you to provide a reasonable accommodation if you need it to do an essential function of the job.
You're also protected from discrimination if there are nonessential duties that you can't perform. For example, an office receptionist might be responsible for replacing heavy water cooler bottles once or twice a month. Lifting the water bottles isn't an essential function of the receptionist's job because there are other people in the office who can do it. So, an applicant for the receptionist job who has a lifting restriction still qualifies for protection under the ADA.
But an applicant or employee who can't perform an essential job function—even with a reasonable accommodation—isn't qualified for the job as a matter of law. The ADA only protects qualified job applicants.
A job duty is essential if any of the following is true:
There are several questions the EEOC considers when evaluating which job functions are essential and which are nonessential:
How much each factor affects the evaluation of job functions will vary depending on the job. For example, the amount of time spent performing a function is usually key to whether it's essential, but not always. For instance, a helicopter pilot doesn't spend much time landing the helicopter after losing power, and might never have to. But the job exists to fly a helicopter safely. So, a helicopter pilot who is unable to autorotate to land after engine failure would not be able to do the job.
If you make it to the job interview stage, you'll have to decide whether or not to disclose your disability. If you have an apparent disability, for example, because you use a wheelchair or a guide dog, you don't have much choice.
But in some other situations, you'll have to make a decision. You're not required to reveal that you have a disability if you don't want to, but sometimes there are good reasons to do so.
Employers aren't allowed to ask whether you have a disability or how your disability affects you. But employers can ask whether you can perform the job's essential functions, with or without an accommodation. An employer can also ask you to demonstrate how you'd perform those functions. Revealing or discussing your disability might make it easier for you to show an employer that you can do the job.
If you need an accommodation for the interview process, you'll have to speak up. For example, let's say you have an apparent visual impairment, and the interviewer asks you to demonstrate how you would perform data entry. You should be ready to explain how you can use voice-activated software to perform that function. (More on this below.)
There are potential downsides to revealing a disability during the interview. Although employers are legally prohibited from denying you a job because of your disability, not all employers follow the law. Even an employer who doesn't consciously intend to discriminate might have unconscious biases and stereotypes about people with disabilities, and that can affect their decision process.
There are two types of tests an employer might ask you to take before hiring you:
The ADA has rules for both.
During the hiring process, an employer can ask you to take a skills test. For example, you might have to take a typing or keyboarding test for an office job. The ADA gives you the right to an accommodation in the testing process if you need one (42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A)).
The ADA allows an employer to require you to take a medical exam, but only if you've received a conditional employment offer—meaning you'll be hired as long as the doctor clears you to do the job (42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)). But the employer can't require you to take a medical exam unless everyone in the position or applying for the position is required to do so.
An accommodation is a change that will allow a person with a disability to be able to complete the necessary task or do the job. Accommodations could include changes to things like:
For example, if you use a wheelchair, you might need a desktop raised or lowered to accommodate your chair. Or, if your disability limits the use of your hands, you might need voice recognition software to use a computer quickly and efficiently.
An accommodation might also be required for the application and interview process. For example, if the doorway to the interview room is too narrow for a wheelchair, an interview with a candidate who uses a wheelchair should be moved to someplace more accessible.
Similarly, if a company requires applicants to take a test, the company should offer accommodations if necessary. For example, if you're hearing impaired, it's reasonable to ask a prospective employer to provide written test instructions in place or oral instructions.
But an accommodation isn't reasonable if it poses an undue hardship on the employer. The ADA defines undue hardship as significant difficulty or expense, considering the employer's size and resources (42 U.S.C. § 12111(10)).
Is it illegal for an employer not to hire someone who has a disability? The answer depends on a lot of facts. The ADA doesn't require an employer to hire an applicant with a disability, but it does bar employers from using your disability as a reason not to hire you.
If you're otherwise qualified for the job and the employer's rejection was based solely on your disability, that's probably illegal discrimination. On the other hand, not being hired isn't disability discrimination if you:
In the real world, an applicant turned down for a job is unlikely to know the whole story. Few employers announce their reasoning in a job interview, and fewer still will admit that they're making discriminatory decisions—some of the reasons discrimination lawsuits based on the hiring process are challenging to win.
But if you believe an employer didn't choose you for a position because of your disability, consider talking to an employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can review the facts with you and help you decide whether it's worth considering legal action or whether you might be better served by simply moving on with your job search.
Learn more about hiring an employment discrimination attorney.
Updated August 18, 2023