Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. This includes jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Similar to laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, gender, or religion, the ADA’s purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as those who do not. This protects disabled individuals by guaranteeing equal opportunities in public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, telecommunications, and employment. The ADA is divided into five titles. The first four titles each address a different sphere of public life, and the fifth section contains laws that apply generally to the first four, including protections against retaliation for people who seek to exercise their rights under the ADA:
- Title I: Equal Employment Opportunities for Individuals With Disabilities;
- Title II: Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services;
- Title III: Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability by Public Accommodations and in Commercial Facilities;
- Title IV: Telecommunications;
- Title V: Miscellaneous, including protections against retaliation.
Title I of the ADA is intended to ensure disabled individuals have access to the same employment opportunities as people without disabilities. This part of the law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among other things, this part of the law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to assist employees that qualify as disabled under the ADA. For example, an employer may need to provide a deaf employee with access to sign language interpreters, provide ramps for employees who use wheelchairs, or under some circumstances provide disabled employees with ergonomic desks or modified workstations. An employer should engage in an interactive process with its employees who have disabilities, to work together to identify and implement effective accommodations for their respective disabilities. The interactive process is ongoing. It may involve a series of meetings over time and oftentimes includes considering input from an employee’s physician. Employees should be able to perform the essential functions of their jobs with the required modifications or adjustments.
Title I of the ADA also prohibits employers from discharging, demoting, or denying advancement opportunities to disabled employees on the basis of their disabilities. An employee who believes they have been subjected to this form of disability discrimination may bring a lawsuit against his or her employer for not complying with the ADA (after first filing a charge of discrimination with the proper EEOC field office). Employees who seek to enforce in court their rights under the ADA to be free from disability-based employment discrimination generally must prove three elements:
- The individual’s impairment must qualify as a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA. The ADA defines “disability” to include (1) any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or (3) a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. To establish if an individual’s particular impairment substantially limits major life activities, a court will consider a variety of factors, including the nature of impairment and its severity, how long the individual has been dealing with the impairment, and the actual or expected long-term impact.
- The individual is qualified and able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodations. This simply means the individual needs to be able to do his or her job, and perform the duties that job entails, once the employer has made the necessary reasonable accommodations for the employee’s disability.
- The individual has suffered an adverse employment action on the basis of his or her disability. An adverse employment action can include a termination, a demotion, the denial of a promotion, or other similar action by the employer that denies the employee advancement opportunities in the company. An adverse employment action “on the basis of disability” can mean a variety of things, depending on the circumstances. For example, it can mean the employer at least partly did not want to keep or advance the employee because of his or her disability, record of disabilities, or perceive disability. Under certain circumstances, it can also mean the employer failed to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s known disability, then terminated or denied opportunities to the employee because of perceived performance deficiencies that could have been avoided if the employer had reasonably accommodated the employee’s disability. For example, if an employer fails to provide a deaf employee with reasonable access to sign language interpreters, then fires the employee for not communicating effectively with others at work who do not know sign language, that might constitute a wrongful termination under the ADA.
In short, Title I of the ADA seeks to ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to employment opportunities as employees without disabilities. Under certain circumstances, employees who feel they have been denied reasonable accommodations at work, or otherwise mistreated by an employer due to a disability, may take legal action to address the issue and improve the equality of employment opportunities for themselves and other employees with disabilities.
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