Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance: Why Knowing Your Employment Rights Is a Must

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It’s clear that we do not live in a country that was built with accessibility in mind. Disabled people and disability activists have spoken out about how they hope remote work opportunities and virtual events, for example, will continue to be offered even after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, discrimination is still commonplace, especially when it comes to the workplace. 

You may have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which exists to ensure disabled people are not discriminated against in employment, housing, and other areas of life. Even though ADA — and the “reasonable accommodations” it affords disabled people — may be familiar to you, you might not know how to request reasonable accommodations at work or just how ADA can support you. Here, we’re taking a look at the Americans with Disabilities Act and delving into why knowing your employment rights — and protections — is a must. 

Editor’s Note: Language is always evolving and we intend to not only foster inclusivity, but respect all people. That said, there is an ongoing conversation about terminology you may encounter in this article — namely, should we be saying “disabled people” or “people with disabilities.” The latter is “person first” language, which aims to emphasize personhood first and foremost. 

While well intentioned, “person first” language has been most often promoted by able people, not necessarily by the disabled community. “[‘Person-first’ language] also reflects how some disabled people experience their disabilities, as simply an aspect of themselves, but not something that defines them,” Andrew Pulrang writes for Forbes. “But many disabled people increasingly feel that their disabilities are not invaders or merely inconvenient attributes, but something more central to who they are.” Moreover, language can be very personal; always respect the terms people ask you to use. 

What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that was signed into law on July 26, 1990. As you may know, ADA extends civil rights protections to disabled people, banning discrimination against disabled people in regards to employment opportunities, public accommodations, public services, transportation, and more. 

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The U.S. Department of Justice has called ADA “one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.” Here, we’ll be taking a closer look specifically at workplace protections and your employment rights under ADA. 

In addition to making disability-based discrimination in the workplace illegal on a federal level, ADA also makes sure businesses and employers are held accountable for having discriminatory policies and practices. It’s important to note that this law applies to any business that has at least 15 employees, and, in some cases, it can even be applied to businesses that have fewer than 15 employees.

Employee Rights Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

In short, ADA protects the employment rights of disabled people. While you can choose whether or not you want to disclose your disability to your employer, notifying an employer of your disability is often the best course of action. Not only is it a matter of self-advocacy, but making sure your employer is aware of your disability can help you manage your workplace anxiety, navigate any discriminatory pressures, and ensure your safety. 

However, ADA does not outline a set list of disabilities, which means that employers can determine which disabilities, mental and physical illnesses, and chronic conditions are covered by the act. That said, ADA does provide some guidance, defining a disability as “a physical or mental [condition] that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Noting that the act doesn’t explicitly provide an exhaustive list of disabilities, the Society for Human Resource Management points out that “the regulations identify medical conditions that would easily be considered a disability within the meaning of the law.” These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Partial or completely missing limbs
  • Mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • HIV infection
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Schizophrenia
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So, how do you know if ADA protects you? If you feel that your disability interferes with your employer’s expectations — or if you require a particular kind of support to be set up for success in your role — you can ask for what are known as “reasonable accommodations.” In fact, if you’re applying for a job or still in training, you can request reasonable accommodations; however, most folks request reasonable accommodations once they’re in their role. If you were not aware of your disability or not disabled when you were hired, you’re still protected under ADA, and employers are still required to make reasonable accommodations if you request them. 

What exactly are reasonable accommodations? The definition is fairly broad. Depending on your disability, you might find an adjustment to your physical workspace would be helpful, or you might believe a new policy, method of communication, work schedule, or tool can create a more equitable work environment. In some instances, employees have requested a change in regards to their title or job description. Every situation varies. In some cases, you might know exactly what accommodations will help you succeed, but, other times, speaking with your doctor or human resources (HR) department can help you determine the best course of action. 

How to Ask for Reasonable Accommodations at Work

To request a reasonable accommodation, an employee needs to make the employer aware that they have a disability. Depending on your comfort level, you can contact HR or reach out to your supervisor. Your request doesn’t have to be in writing, nor does it have to be extensive; it’s perfectly acceptable to make a verbal request. For example, you can tell your supervisor, “I have a medical condition that will not allow me to lift more than fifty pounds from now on.” 

While there’s no requirement to make the request in writing, it’s often legally prudent to do so. Depending on the policies of the business, the employer may ask the employee to make the request in writing even if it has been made verbally; some employers have internal forms you’ll need to complete. Regardless of the nuance, having a record — in writing — is a great way to protect yourself if, in the future, you are wrongfully discriminated against. 

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If you aren’t comfortable speaking with your employer directly, you can also have a representative, such as a social worker, make the request on your behalf. The employer may ask for additional information, and the process for getting the accommodation may be more of a negotiation — ADA considers this stage of the request to be an “interactive dialogue,” for example. The goal during an interactive dialogue is to find a solution that honors the employee’s right to equality in the workplace, all while considering the employer’s needs.

This dialogue is one of few instances that allows an employer to ask you about your disability in detail. Your employer may need more information to fully understand the nature of your disability and the extent of any accommodation requests. In some cases, employers may request a doctor’s note or information from your psychiatrist. However, employers are not allowed to ask for more information if your disability is clear. For example, if you use a wheelchair, your employer can’t ask you for more detail if you request a wheelchair-accessible bathroom close to your office. 

Limitations of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Under ADA, an employer can deny a request if it places so-called “undue hardship” on the employer. Large businesses are often under more of an onus to make accommodations for employers, while smaller ones may be able to legitimately claim undue hardship if honoring the accommodation would create a significant cost burden or impede the business’s ability to function. 

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Moreover, prospective employees must still meet the hiring criteria and be able to perform the basic functions of the job; ADA does not allow anyone to be hired for a job if they aren’t qualified. For example, a job that requires a bachelor’s degree would not be required to hire a disabled applicant if they just have an associate’s degree. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act promotes equality in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean employers will default to making accommodations or understand if they’re being discriminatory. While it can be frustrating, advocating for yourself is essential — and ADA, which has supported millions of disabled employees for three decades, only bolsters your self-advocacy. 

Of course, not all disabled Americans are fully protected, even with ADA; transgender and queer disabled Americans can still experience blatant workplace discrimination for being trans or queer — and their employers won’t necessarily be held accountable or face legal consequences for that discrimination. This year, there’s been a surge of support for the passage of the Equality Act, which would further protect LGBTQ+ people, including disabled LGBTQ+ employees.