Prior to the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was passed into law in 1990, it was legal (and common) to discriminate against employees and prospective employees with disabilities.
Thanks to the ADA, it is now illegal to discriminate against disabled individuals at all levels of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, and promotion. It also offers protections from retaliation for employees or applicants who attempt to enforce their rights under the law in the event they believe they have been violated.
The law requires private employers with fifteen or more employees to adhere to the ADA’s requirements. Many individual states have their own versions of ADA as well, and these laws may apply to employers who are smaller than those covered by the federal statute.
Which employees are covered under the law? An employee or applicant who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (i.e., the individual is paralyzed and requires a wheelchair), an employee or applicant who has a history of impairment (i.e., the individual is in remission from a previous cancer diagnosis), and an employee or applicant whom the employer regards as disabled, even if the person is not actually disabled.
Substantial limitation of a major life activity is defined broadly and includes basic functions, such as communicating, walking, reading, or bending and also includes major bodily functions, such as brain, bowel, neurological, circulatory, and respiratory functions. You may have a diagnosed disability, but if it does not significantly affect your ability to perform these life activities, it will not qualify you for protections under ADA.
Under the law, qualified individuals (people who meet the definition just described above) must be provided a reasonable accommodation to work. The accommodation is an adjustment or modification that will allow the disabled individual to perform his or her job.
“Reasonable” means that it will not cause an undue hardship for the employer. “Undue hardship” means that the employer does not need to provide the accommodation if doing so would require significant difficulty or expense to implement. Factors that determine undue hardship include the financial resources of the employer, the kind and cost of the accommodation, existing accommodation costs already in the workplace, and the nature of the business, including its size and structure. Fortunately, most workplace accommodations cost an average of $500, which is a cost accessible to most employers.
In order to obtain the reasonable accommodation, the qualified employee must ask for it—the employer is not required to guess what its employees need to do their jobs, unless it already knows that an accommodation is required. If multiple accommodations are available, the employer can choose which one to provide, but it needs to communicate with the affected employee first.