Americans with Disabilities Act: What Employers Should Know

If your business has 15 or more employees, you need to understand a certain law to the letter, and we're not talking about tax law: it's the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. One of the most important developments in employment law, it is essential to research this Act and know what requirements and conditions apply to you. Don't find yourself in the middle of a messy lawsuit.

What Is It?

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits private employers, state and local government, labor unions and other employment agencies from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Discrimination is prohibited in job application procedures, hiring and firing, advancement and promotion, fair compensation, training, and other rights and privileges of employment. While the Act first covered employers with 25 or more employees, in 1994 the Act was changed to include employers with 15 or more employees.

What Is a "Qualified Individual?"

Since the Act prohibits discrimination against "qualified individuals with disabilities," you need to know who is protected under the Act and who is not. As defined in the Act, an individual with a disability is a person who has a recorded or established physical and/or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Once an individual is determined to have a disability, you then must focus on the "qualified" term of the Act's definition. A qualified applicant or employee with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

Keep in mind that prospective or current employees with drug problems are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the Act restricts medical examinations or requirements, tests for illegal drugs are not subject to the Act's restrictions. Therefore, employers may hold illegal drug users and alcoholics to the same standard as other applicants and may deny or terminate employment if the work policy is to ban employment for anyone for such drug and/or alcohol use.

What Can You Ask?

As an employer, there are limitations to what you can or cannot ask during interviews and examinations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employers may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature or severity of a disability. Employers may ask about the applicant's ability to perform specific job duties and functions. Base any employment decision on the applicant's ability to perform these duties, just like any standard applicant or employee.

A decision to deny or terminate employment may be determined by a medical examination, but such a medical examination must be part of the company policy and required for all applicants entering similar jobs, not just applicants with disabilities. Also, the medical examination must be reasonable, job-related and consistent with the job duties and the company's needs.

What Is Required?

If an applicant or employee meets the above specifications of a qualified individual with a disability, then you must perform reasonable workplace accommodations for the individual and his or her disability. As set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act, reasonable accommodations include, but are not limited to, making existing work facilities accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, job restructuring, schedule modification and reassignment to an existing vacant position, acquiring or modifying equipment, training materials or policies, and providing qualified readers or interpreters.

However, there are limits to these accommodation requirements; an employer is required to make these reasonable accommodations only if it would not pose an undue burden and hardship on the operation of the employer's business. As defined by the Act, an undue hardship is an action that would require significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as the size of the employer's business, financial resources and the nature and structure of the business. You, as an employer, are not required to make accommodations that would lower quality or production standards in your business, nor are you required to provide personal use items such as hearing aids or eyeglasses.

As an employer in today's workforce, it is crucial to be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act and stay updated on any revisions to this law. Performing the requirements of this Act will ensure that all qualified individuals with disabilities have rights and privileges in your workplace equal to those of employees without disabilities. Help keep your business in good standing and compliance with laws that govern your operation.