FAQ: The Americans with Disabilities Act at Work

By Tara Drinks
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August 27, 2020

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination.

The ADA applies across many areas of life, including in the workplace. 

Here are our answers to some frequently asked questions about the ADA at work.

What’s the ADA definition of disability?

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

There’s no official list of disabilities under the ADA, but many conditions qualify. 

Disabilities can be:

  • Visible or invisible
  • Physical, mental, or both
  • Related to learning and thinking
  • Lifelong or temporary

Temporary disabilities can be long-term or short-term—for example, recovery from a surgery. 

The ADA also protects workers from discrimination because of a past disability, or because an employer thinks the worker has a disability. 

Who’s protected by the ADA at work?

The ADA protects people of all ages who are employed or looking for work. 

To be protected by the ADA at work, employees must be “qualified” workers. This means they meet the general requirements of the job and can perform its essential functions, with or without reasonable workplace accommodations. 

For example, an employer might require that a job applicant meet particular training and licensing requirements to be hired as a nurse. An applicant who did not meet those training and licensing requirements might not be a qualified worker for that position.

What is a reasonable workplace accommodation?

A workplace accommodation is a change to a job or work environment that breaks down a barrier for a person with a disability. It allows them to apply for a job or perform the job’s essential functions. For example, someone with dyslexia might need a read-aloud functionality built into their email system. Or someone recovering from back surgery may need a new desk chair.

Under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable workplace accommodations for people with disabilities. But they don’t need to provide an accommodation that is an “undue hardship” to the employer.

Does the ADA apply to every employer in the United States?

No. The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. It also applies to state and local government employers, employment agencies, and labor unions.

Federal government employers are subject to Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, which offers similar employee protections.

There are also state and local laws protecting workers with disabilities. And some may be more protective than the ADA. For example, some state laws might require employers with fewer than 15 employees to meet ADA requirements.

Does a job applicant have to be hired before they’re covered by the ADA?

Not necessarily. The ADA protects people with disabilities throughout the hiring and employment process, including during the application and interview stages.

A job seeker can be covered by the ADA even if they are not offered the job.

Does the ADA require employers to provide “special treatment” for people with disabilities?

No. Employers are not required to lower production or quality standards to accommodate employees with disabilities.

How does the ADA protect employees?

The ADA prohibits:

  • Discrimination, such as hiring decisions based on disability status
  • Harassment, such as offensive remarks from a supervisor or co-worker
  • Retaliation, such as withholding a promotion because an employee has asked for a workplace accommodation

The ADA provides:

  • Reasonable workplace accommodations so that employees can do their jobs
  • Confidentiality of employees’ medical and disability-related information
  • Equal opportunities for people with disabilities

Does the ADA offer COVID-19 protections?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided detailed guidance about COVID-19 and the ADA

Many people have disabilities that could make COVID-19 more dangerous if they get it. And lots of workplaces are changing their rules and systems due to the coronavirus, which can create new problems for employees with disabilities. 

Qualified workers may use the ADA to ask for workplace accommodations related to the coronavirus. Learn more about how to ask for accommodations related to COVID-19 at work.

Who can answer more questions about the ADA in the workplace?

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers free, confidential guidance about the ADA and related employment topics for people with disabilities. 

To contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), call:

  • 1-800-669-4000
  • 1-800-669-6820 (TTY)
  • 1-844-234-5122 (ASL Video Phone)

You can also call the federal government’s ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301 (voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY). 

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