Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

In 1990, the United States enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The ADA was implemented with the purpose of protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of life including, but not limited to, employment, schools, and transportation. Then, in 2008, the American with Disabilities Act was amended and is now referred to as the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act ("ADAAA"). The ADAAA became effective in January, 2009 and has significantly changed the way "disability" is defined. Specifically, the ADAAA makes it easier for an individual to establish that he/she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA because the definition of a disability is construed more broadly.

The ADA & Employment

Title I of the ADA protects people with disabilities from being discriminated against in the workplace. Title I creates an equal playing field and allows people with disabilities to access the same employment opportunities and benefits as people without disabilities. In addition, Title I applies to private employers with fifteen (15) or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions. Under Title I of the ADA, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate in all employment practices including, but not limited to, job application procedures, hiring, firing, disciplinary action, advancement, and compensation.

Who Is Protected?

In short, "qualified persons with disabilities" are covered under Title I of the ADA. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a qualified person with a disability is defined as "a person who meets legitimate skill, experience, education, or other requirements of an employment position that he or she hold or seeks, and who can perform the essential function of the position with or without a reasonable accommodation." For example, if an employee with a physical or mental disability has the proper skills, training, education and experience to be a paralegal, she would be considered a qualified person with a disability even if she does not require an accommodation.

What Is A Reasonable Accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation can be described as a modification or adjustment to a job or work environment so that an employee with a disability can perform an essential job function. Once an employer becomes aware that one of its employees needs an accommodation, the ADA requires that employer to engage in an "interactive process" with the employee to determine what, if any, reasonable accommodation exists. The interactive process is a dialogue between the employer and employee which identifies protentional reasonable accommodations and the employee's exact limitations as a result of the disability. Thus, the interactive process allows both the employer and employee to come together to try and determine the best solution that works for both parties.

The interactive process should lead to a reasonable accommodation that suits both the employer and employee. However, there are times when the two parties cannot agree or when no reasonable accommodation is plausible. Consequently, an employer is not required to make an accommodation for an employee with a disability if the accommodation would create an "undue hardship" on the operation of the employer's business. Therefore, if the accommodation would be significantly difficult or expensive to create or implement, the accommodation would not be considered reasonable and the employer would not have to provide that specific accommodation.

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