Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone with a disability. Discrimination is when you are treated unfairly or unequally because you have a disability. To be protected under the ADA, you must have, have a record of, or be regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as hearing, seeing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning, or working. Major life activities also include the operation of major bodily functions, so you are covered under the ADA if you have a condition that affects any of the following:

  • The immune system
  • Special sense organs
  • The skin
  • Cell growth
  • Digestive, genitourinary, bowel, and bladder functions
  • Nervous system, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions

If you have a disability and are qualified to do a job, the ADA protects you from job discrimination that results from your disability. The ADA also requires employers to supply reasonable accommodations if you need them at any stage of the application process, after you are offered the job, and during your employment. You are responsible for telling your employer if you need an accommodation and what accommodation will work best for you. For more information about jobs and appropriate accommodations, you can read DB101's Job Supports and Accommodations article.

In addition, the ADA protects you if you have a history of a disability (such as cancer that is now in remission) or if an employer believes that you have a disability, even if you don't.

The ADA also protects you from discrimination if you have a relationship with a person who is disabled, even if you do not have a disability. For example, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because your spouse or child has a disability.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces the ADA. Later in this article, we’ll talk more about what to do if you think your employer is not following the ADA.

What Employers Does the ADA Apply To?

The ADA applies to all public and private employers with 15 or more employees and to all state and local government employers, regardless of how many employees they have. The ADA does not apply to federal agencies. Instead, federal agencies have to follow the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is almost identical to the ADA.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA)

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) also protects people with disabilities. Most of the differences between it and the ADA are minor. One big difference is that the ADA only covers employers with 15 or more employees, while the MHRA covers all employers, no matter how small the business. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) is the state agency that enforces the MHRA.

What Parts of Employment Does the ADA Cover?

The ADA covers all aspects of employment, including:

  • Hiring, firing, and pay
  • Job assignment, promotion, layoff, training, and fringe benefits (such as health care coverage, pension, or retirement contributions)
  • Any other term or condition of employment

It is also illegal for an employer to retaliate against (get back at) you for asserting your rights under the ADA. So you are protected when you do things like tell your employer you have a disability, ask for a reasonable accommodation, or file a complaint.

In addition to protecting people with disabilities from discrimination, the ADA also requires employers to provide you with reasonable accommodations at your workplace or when you apply for a job, unless doing so would be an undue burden or hardship to the employer. An undue burden means it would be very difficult or very expensive for the employer to give you the accommodation you ask for. If you have a disability and are employed or looking for a job, your right to ask for reasonable accommodations is one of the most important parts of the ADA.

To learn more about reasonable accommodations and how to request them, see DB101’s article on Job Accommodations.

Who is Protected by the ADA?

If you have a disability and are qualified to do a job, the ADA protects you from job discrimination that results from your disability. Under the ADA, you have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The ADA also protects you if you have a history of such a disability, or if an employer believes that you have such a disability, even if you do not.

The ADA uses the term “substantial impairment” to define which disabilities qualify for protection. To be protected under the ADA, you must have, have a record of, or be regarded as having a substantial impairment, not a minor impairment. A substantial impairment is one that significantly limits or restricts a major life activity, such as hearing, seeing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning, or working. Substantial impairments can include physical disabilities, mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, or the operation of major bodily functions.

If you have a disability, to be protected from job discrimination by the ADA, you must also be qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation. This means two things:

  1. You must meet certain conditions that the employer needs job applicants to have, such as education, work experience, skills, or licenses.
  2. You must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Essential functions are the fundamental job duties that you must be able to perform on your own or with the help of a reasonable accommodation. An employer cannot refuse to hire you because your disability prevents you from performing duties that are not essential to the job. At the same time, you cannot ask that an essential function be removed from your job description as a reasonable accommodation.
Example

You work as a telephone marketer and it is an essential function that you need to be able to speak clearly. However, it is not an essential function that you need to be able to lift heavy objects. Your employer cannot fire you because you cannot lift heavy objects or require all employees to be able to lift a certain amount of weight.

Where Can You Learn More About the ADA?

The federal agency that enforces the employment discrimination part of the ADA is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC has numerous publications, including: