On July 26th, 1990, one of the most transformative pieces of civil rights legislation was passed into law: the Americans with Disabilities Act, otherwise known as the ADA. The ADA was created to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all other public and private areas opened to the public. Today many of us can see the effects of the ADA just by walking into a building or riding public transportation.
The ADA is divided into five sections to protect individuals with disabilities in different areas of life:
- Title I: Employment
- Title II: Public Services: State and Local Government
- Title III: Public Accommodations and Services by Private Entities
- Title IV: Telecommunications
- Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions
The ADA does not provide an exhaustive list of conditions that are protected under the act. Some believe the ADA was designed to be incomplete so that it could be expanded and include new disabilities. For example, in July of 2021, President Joe Biden announced that individuals suffering from serious long-term COVID-19 could qualify as disabled under the ADA.
Employers’ Obligations under the ADA
Many ADA lawsuits filed against businesses are based on allegations of discrimination, which include allegations relating to Title I of the ADA. Therefore, it is crucial for employers to understand their rights and obligations under the ADA.
Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. To be protected under the ADA as an employee, the employee must have a substantial impairment that significantly limits or restricts a major life activity such as hearing, speaking, seeing, walking, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, or caring for oneself. The employee also must have a history or record of such an impairment or have the impairment be perceived by others. The ADA is not intended to prevent an employer from hiring the best qualified applicant, but it does prohibit an employer from discriminating against a qualified applicant or employee based on their disability.
An employer is responsible for making reasonable accommodations to a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the job application process, perform essential functions of the job, or enjoy benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by other employees without disabilities. However, it is not necessary for an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so would create an undue hardship. An undue hardship would include accommodations that are excessively costly, extensive, substantial, disruptive, or fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. Accommodations are not free, and, at times, can be expensive. However, there are free and less-expensive accommodations out there.
The ADA also permits an employer to require that an individual not pose a significant risk of substantial harm to the health and safety of the individual or others in the workplace. The significance of substantial harm must be based on objective and factual evidence regarding the individual’s present ability to perform the essential functions of the job. The employer also must consider whether a reasonable accommodation can eliminate the risk or reduce it to an acceptable level.
How Can Employers Help People with Disabilities?
Employers should not assume that an individual with a disability needs an accommodation. Ask. By asking, employers can better provide for their employees while avoiding costly and unnecessary accommodations. Likewise, while some barriers for people with disabilities may seem insurmountable, technology and other accommodations can be used to overcome obstacles and allow disabled employees to successfully perform their jobs.
Seek out resources
Use disability organizations in the community as resources. There are various organizations out there that are willing to help, such as The Whole Person in Kansas City, Paraquad in St. Louis, and the Disability Community Resource Center in Los Angeles.
The ADA National Network has extensive ADA resources for employers, offering answers to frequently asked questions, trainings and webinars, and more. The Great Plains ADA Center serves the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. Los Angeles is served by the Pacific ADA Center. You can find additional regional information at their website.
Additionally, for small businesses, tax credits are available to employers who invest in accommodations for those with disabilities, and certain deductions related to the costs of accommodations are also permitted in many cases. Make sure to consult with your tax professional.
Create inclusive culture
To create this culture, employers should attend etiquette and awareness seminars. An inclusive and welcoming culture will create an open-door policy of communication that will allow individuals with disabilities be comfortable to voice their concerns and needs. Again, the ADA National Network provides training and seminars that can help to foster inclusivity in the workplace.
One thing that this pandemic has taught us is that things can change overnight. Work with your employees and human resources department to determine what adaptations can be made to accommodate employees with disabilities. For instance, if you have employees with chronic illnesses, think about having remote or flexible scheduling that can better allow them to perform their essential job functions.
Accommodating applicants and employees with disabilities is not just a legal requirement. It’s the right thing to do to help build a more inclusive and welcoming workplace culture and a stronger community as a whole.
While some ADA regulations and requirements may seem complex or confusing, RDM’s Employment and Labor Law Team has the know-how to review your policies and procedures to make sure your business complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our attorneys stay up to date on the ever-changing landscape of laws pertaining to people with disabilities, and we’re ready to help you achieve the best outcomes for your business and your employees. Contact RDM today to discuss your ADA compliance needs.