Employment and ADA Basics

How does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to employment?

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in many areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and many public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA is divided into five sections, also known as Titles.

Title I of the ADA is designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Title I prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. This applies to job applicants, the hiring process, job training, and firing. Under Title I, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees. Reasonable accommodations can be granted to job applicants or employees with a disability to enable them to participate fully in the interview process, perform the job’s essential functions, and/or enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. Title I regulations define disability as well as direct threat in the workplace, establish guidelines for the reasonable accommodation process, and address requirements around medical examinations and inquiries.

Private employers who have 15 or more employees, or state and local government employers of any size, are required to provide reasonable accommodations. Federal agencies and employers are not covered by Title I of the ADA but are instead covered by Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act.

How to file a complaint

Title I of the ADA is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. The EEOC issues Title I regulations and is where workplace discrimination charges under Title I are filed. Need to take action? Visit the EEOC’s article on Filing A Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC to learn more. You can also contact your regional ADA Center for information about state and local laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Who is protected from employment discrimination under the ADA?

Under Title I of the ADA, employment discrimination is prohibited against qualified individuals with disabilities. This includes applicants and employees. An individual is considered to have a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment. Examples of major life activities are breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, sleeping, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and working. Major life activities also include major bodily functions. For more information on major life activities, you can visit our FAQ page on this topic. People who have a known association or relationship with an individual with a disability are also protected from discrimination, but do not qualify for reasonable accommodations solely on the basis on this relationship.

What employment practices and activities are covered by the nondiscrimination requirements in Title I?

The ADA prohibits discrimination in all employment practices, including:

  • Job application procedures, including conducting interviews.
  • Hiring, firing, and layoffs.
  • Training and recruitment.
  • Advancement and tenure reviews.
  • Compensation.
  • Advertising.
  • Work-leave.
  • Conditions, benefits, and privileges of employment.

Myths and misconceptions about employees with disabilities

There are many myths and misconceptions about employees with disabilities. However, studies show that employees with disabilities perform as well on the job as employees without disabilities. They may just do things a little differently. Employees with disabilities are no more likely to be violent in the workplace, have more workplace accidents, or be absent from the job than other employees. Another common misconception is that most reasonable accommodations are costly. In fact, reasonable accommodations cost far less than many employers believe. For more information, see the U.S. Department of Labor’s publication, Employers and the ADA: Myths and Facts.

Key terms and helpful definitions

Essential functions: Essential functions are the job duties that are fundamental to the position; they are the reason the job exists. Employees with disabilities need to be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodations. An employee with a disability who requires frequent doctor appointments might be granted a flexible schedule as an accommodation, as long as they are able to perform the essential functions of the job (such as keeping up with client emails and scheduling). Whether an employee with a disability requests an accommodation or not, they need to be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

Direct threat: Direct threat means there is a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual, workplace, or community that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. For example, an employee who has uncontrolled seizures due to epilepsy might pose a direct threat in a workplace where they are operating heavy machinery.

Major life activities: Major life activities are basic physical and mental functions, including the operation of bodily functions. Examples of major life activities may include (but are not limited to) breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, sleeping, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and working. Examples of major bodily functions include the operation of the respiratory, circulatory, neurological, digestive, or immune systems.

Qualified individual: A qualified individual with a disability is a person who meets skill, experience, education, or other requirements of an employment position they hold or seek, and who can perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.

Reasonable accommodations: A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable an applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodations also include adjustments to assure that an individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis. Examples of reasonable accommodation may include:

  • Changing job tasks (as long as the tasks aren’t essential functions of the job).
  • Providing reserved parking.
  • Allowing a flexible work schedule.
  • Changing the format or methods used for tests and training materials.
  • Improving physical accessibility in a work area.

Undue hardship: Undue hardship is an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of several factors. These factors include the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer's operation. Undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis. If cost causes undue hardship, an employer must also consider whether funding for an accommodation is available from an outside source, such as a vocational rehabilitation agency, and if the cost of providing the accommodation can be offset by state or federal tax credits or deductions.