Americans with Disabilities Act

ADA Explained

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. The ADA applies to private employers, state employers, and local government employers with 15 or more employees.

The ADA protects qualified employees and applicants with disabilities who can perform the essential functions of their jobs with or without reasonable accommodation in respects to terms and conditions of employment. This includes, but is not limited to, hiring, training, compensation, benefits, promotions, discipline, terminations, and social activities. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment to help a disabled individual apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by individuals without disabilities.

On January 1, 2009, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which significantly broadened the scope of the ADA, went into effect. As a result, more people qualify as disabled under the ADA and qualify for the ADA’s protections.

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Defining disability

In order to qualify for protection under the ADA, an individual must have a qualifying disability. The ADA employs a broad three-pronged approach to defining disability.

The final rule does not change this definition, but rather, enhances it to allow for an even broader interpretation.

  1. PRONG #1: An actual disability
    An individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, as compared with most people in the general population, has an “actual disability.”

    The term “major life activity” is broadly applied to include activities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, sitting, reaching, interacting with others, and “major bodily functions.”

    Major bodily functions include functions of the immune system; normal cell growth; digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, and reproductive functions; functions of the special sense organs and skin; genitourinary, cardiovascular, hemic, lymphatic, and musculoskeletal functions; and "the operation of an individual organ within a body system," such as the operation of the kidneys, liver, or pancreas.

    Example: an individual with cancer or a hearing impairment.
  2. PRONG #2: A record of disability
    An individual with a record (i.e., history) of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Example: an individual whose cancer is in remission.
  3. PRONG #3: "Regarded as" having a disability
    An individual needs to establish only that he or she was “regarded as” (i.e., perceived as) having a disability and was discriminated against on that basis. The individual does not need to show that there was actually an impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities.

Employers do not need to make accommodations for individuals who are “regarded as” disabled. Additionally, conditions that are both transitory and minor are excluded from protection under the “regarded as” prong of the disability definition. “Transitory” is defined as lasting six months or less. While the regulations do not define the term “minor,” it is likely that this term will be defined through litigation over time.

Qualifying for ADA protection

To be protected under the ADA, an individual must have a disability as defined under the ADA and be able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. 

Essential job functions refer to the fundamental job duties of an individual position. They are the primary job duties that are fundamental to the position.   

Functions that are not essential are considered marginal functions of the position.  Keep in mind that essential job functions for the same position may vary depending on the location or business unit where the individual works.

Reasonable accommodation

Employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations that enable an employee or applicant to perform the essential functions of their job.  A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment to help a disabled individual apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by individuals without disabilities.

If an individual with a known disability is having difficulty performing a job, the employer may inquire whether the employee is in need of a reasonable accommodation. In general, however, it is the individual’s responsibility to request a reasonable accommodation from the employer. It should be noted that the accommodation request may also be made by someone on behalf of the individual, such as a health-care provider or family member.

When requesting a reasonable accommodation, an individual does not have to specifically mention the ADA or specifically use the term “reasonable accommodation.” An accommodation request need only be made in “plain English” and can be raised verbally or in writing.

An employer may request reasonable documentation (i.e., medical records) that the individual has an ADA-qualifying disability and needs a reasonable accommodation. An employer cannot, however, ask for documentation when:

  1. Both the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation are obvious; or
  2. The individual has already provided the employer with sufficient information to substantiate that he or she has an ADA disability and needs the reasonable accommodation requested.

Given the confidential nature of medical records, it is recommended that managers not receive documentation providing specific information about an individual’s disability. 

Employers do not need to create new jobs for disabled individuals. The guiding principle is that an individual should be able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. The law requires that the accommodation be reasonable; it does not have to be the accommodation that the individual requests, the best possible accommodation, or the most expensive accommodation.

An employer is not required to make an accommodation if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. Undue hardship, which is determined on a case-by-case basis, is significant difficulty or expense in setting up or maintaining the accommodation.

Accordingly, an accommodation that would be unduly costly, extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business, is not reasonable. An employer has the burden of demonstrating that an accommodation is an undue hardship.

Therefore, an employer should document thoroughly how the accommodation would change the nature of the business, impact its ability to function, or otherwise adversely affect business operations. Because the full resources of an employer are considered, a larger employer with greater resources may be expected to make an accommodation requiring greater effort or expense than a small employer with fewer resources.

If an accommodation would result in an undue hardship, the employer must try to identify another accommodation that would be reasonable.

For more information on your company’s ADA reasonable accommodation process, you should contact your human resources representative or consult your Human Resources policies and procedures.

Managers can access FMLA & ADA 101 training to learn more about the ADA.

Managers can also visit the EEOC website for more information about the ADA.

For informational purposes. Please visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website or for more information.

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