Disability Discrimination and the ADA

Discrimination based on a disability occurs when a disabled individual is treated unfavorably by an individual or entity because of that individual’s disability. Federal law, specifically Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prohibits private sector employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against individuals because of their disabilities. The amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prevent federal agencies, as employers, from discriminating against disabled individuals.

Discrimination against disabled individuals can occur in non-employment settings as well. Outside the employment context, disability discrimination can occur when disabled individuals do not have access to the same types of places or activities as those without disabilities, if the lack of access is due to accommodations that could be made by another individual or entity. Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals regarding accommodations in public places.

Defining Disability

Under the ADA, an individual is considered disabled if the individual has:

  • A physical or mental condition that affects one or more body systems and substantially limits a major life activity;
  • A history of disability (such as a condition that is currently in remission); or
  • What is perceived to be a disability.

Employment Discrimination

Discrimination against an individual with a disability, who is otherwise qualified for an employment position, occurs when an employer treats an individual adversely because of his or her disability. Disability discrimination is prohibited in all aspects of employment, including hiring, compensation, promotions, training, and firing.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. Failure to do so would be discriminatory. An employer reasonably accommodates a disabled employee when the employer makes a change in the workplace to help a disabled individual apply for a job or perform duties or tasks specific to that job. Common accommodations include actions such as adding a wheelchair ramp for an employee or creating a space for the service dog of a blind employee.

The only circumstance under which an employer would not have to provide proper accommodation to a disabled employee is if providing the accommodation would bring about undue hardship to the employer, meaning the accommodation would be too expensive or too burdensome for the employer to provide. Furthermore, the employer does not have to provide the exact modification requested by the employee if another change would serve the same purpose and would be easier for the employer to provide.

The ADA prohibits employers from asking potential employees about any suspected disabilities. Nor can an employer ask a prospective employee to take any type of medical exam prior to extending a job offer. After an employee with a disability has been hired, the employer may request that the individual take a medical exam, but only if all other company or agency hires are required to take the same medical examination.

If individuals suspect that they have been discriminated against because of their disability, they may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Although deadlines may differ depending on the state and specific case, a claim generally must be filed no later than 180 days after the alleged discrimination occurred. In some instances, if the claim is filed with a state agency equivalent to the EEOC, a claim must be filed no later than 300 days from the date of the alleged discrimination. After receiving the claim, the EEOC will begin its investigation process. If the EEOC determines that the employer has in fact violated the ADA and the parties are unable to reach any type of settlement or agreement, the ADA will issue a “right to sue” letter to the complainant that will then allow that individual to file suit against the employer in federal court.

Accommodation Discrimination

Title III of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination in places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and private entities offering educational or vocational certification. Places of public accommodation include places such as restaurants, theaters, doctor’s offices, zoos, and libraries. Commercial facilities are non-residential locations such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings. A complete list of the various places that require accommodations for the disabled can be found in Title III of the ADA. Religious organizations and private clubs are not included in the regulations. State and other government buildings are covered by Title II of the ADA.

Likewise, if there is new construction being built, the builders are required to abide by any accommodation building requirements set out by the ADA. Title III requires the applicable structures or buildings to take reasonable measures to accommodate individuals with disabilities and, on older buildings, remove barriers that may unfairly or unreasonably block access to disabled individuals.

If a disabled individual believes he or she has been discriminated against in violation of Title III, the individual may sue the party in violation. A lawsuit of this nature, however, does not allow for a monetary damage award. The remedy is usually some form of an injunction. This is an order from the court directing the entity to make specific changes to its building structures to ensure that disabled individuals have access to the goods or services provided by the entity. Individuals may also file a complaint with the Attorney General who may bring a cause of action on behalf of an individual, if there is an established pattern or practice of discrimination or it is a matter of general public importance. Monetary damage awards are available in lawsuits initiated by the Attorney General.