Disability Discrimination

Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Disability

Disability discrimination is prohibited under several federal and state laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The ADA protects people who have disabilities or a record of disabilities, people who are regarded as having a disability, and people who have relationships or associations with people who have disabilities. For example, an employer may not fire a qualified employee because his or her spouse is disabled and requires care.

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or emotional impairment that substantially limits one or more basic life activities or bodily functions that people who are not disabled do not usually have trouble doing. Some common examples include breathing, walking, talking, writing, and socializing. The impairment must be substantial to be protected under the ADA.

Moreover, an individual claiming protection under this law must be qualified to perform the essential duties of a job. This means that the employee must satisfy an employer’s ordinary requirements for a job, including the education, experience, licenses, or skills necessary. It also means that the employee must be able to perform fundamental job duties independently or with the help of a reasonable accommodation. An employer cannot refuse to hire or promote someone because a disability prevents that person from performing nonessential duties.

Complaints related to the ADA must be filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the date of discrimination. The EEOC will review complaints to determine whether an individual claimant has a right to sue.

Reasonable Accommodations for Those With Disabilities

What are “reasonable accommodations?” They are any change in a workplace or the way things are done in the workplace to help a person with a disability apply, perform, or enjoy the benefits of a job. Employers are required to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee or job applicant unless it would cause significant expense or hardship. For example, it might be appropriate to provide a wheelchair ramp or a parking space on a certain level to make the workplace more accessible to an employee in a wheelchair. Or it might be appropriate to restructure the hours of the job for an employee with cancer who needs weekly medical treatments. This situation shows that adjustments are not always in tangible form.

If an employer shows that a requested accommodation would cause “undue hardship,” it does not have to provide it. Undue hardship does not let the employer off the hook in the event that an accommodation involves a trivial cost or mild inconvenience. Instead, it applies when it is too expensive or difficult to provide in light of the size of the employer’s business, its finances, and its needs. Moreover, if there are multiple possible accommodations that would address the individual’s disability, an employer can choose which of them to provide, even if it is not the adjustment that the employee would prefer. For example, in the case of a disabled person who needs access to meetings normally held on the second floor, the employer could choose to move the meetings to the first floor rather than install an elevator or wheelchair ramp.