The Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA") prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all employment decisions. In order know what your rights under the ADA may be, however, you need to understand certain things about the ADA.
1: The word "disability" in the ADA means something more than you might think.
The ADA definition of a "disability" is a legal one, rather than a medical one, such as the one used in determining eligibility for disability benefits.
The ADA defines a "disability" as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity." However, the ADA definition goes further, and includes "people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability." Finally, the ADA definition includes people who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.
2. What is a "major life activity?"
The ADA doesn't really define "major life activities," but instead, provides a non-exhaustive list of example.
According to the ADA, "For purposes of [the ADA], major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working."
In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act that expanded the concept of "major life activities" to include "the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions."
3. To bring an ADA case, you must be "an otherwise qualified individual."
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. HOWEVER, in order to prove that the discrimination is based on a disability, an employee must prove that he/she is fully-qualified and able to perform the job. The employee can show that he/she can perform "the essential functions of the job" without an accommodation, or with a reasonable accommodation.
4. How reasonable does an accommodation have to be?
The ADA requires an employer to provide a disabled employee with a reasonable accommodation if requested. A reasonable accommodation is one that allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, but which does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. For example, an employee cannot demand, as a reasonable accommodation, that an essential function of the job be taken away from the employee and assigned to another employee. Nor, if the employer considers specific attendance standards to be an essential function of the job, can the employee demand attendance standards that are more lenient than those afforded to non-disabled employees.
Just because there is some financial or other cost to the employer, an accommodation does not necessarily impose an undue hardship on the employer. And, a reasonable accommodation can involve transfer of the employee to another position, although the employer is not required to CREATE a new position to accommodate the employee.
5. "Regarded as Disabled" Claims
A "regarded as" disabled claim does not require the employee to prove that the employer actually believes the employee has a disability as that term is defined in the ADA. Instead, the ADA only requires that the employee prove that his employer believes the employee is incapable of doing the job for some health or medically related reason.
This can include situations where the employer erroneously believes that the employee condition would be dangerous to other employees or customers. For example, terminating an employee who is HIV+ because other employees are afraid to work with the employee.
Like all federal anti-discrimination statutes, the ADA makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who either attempts to exercise his rights under the ADA, assists another employee to exercise those rights, files an ADA complaint, or participates in the investigation or prosecution of a violation of the ADA.
Additional resources provided by the author
For additional information on the ADA, go to the Department of Labor's website.
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