Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants
with disabilities in all aspects of employment including hiring, pay, promotion, firing, and more. It also protects
employees from retaliation when they enforce their rights under the law.

The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, as well as local governments. Many states have
similar laws, which may apply to smaller employers too.

Employers subject to the ADA cannot discriminate against a “qualified worker with a disability.” Furthermore, the
employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for a worker with a disability as long as the accommodation won’t
cause the employer undue hardship. The ADA specifies what counts as a disability, which workers are protected by the
law, when accommodations are required, and what constitutes an undue hardship.

Covered Employees

The ADA protects the following employees:

  • An employee who has a disability. If an employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a
    major life activity, he or she is protected.
  • An employee with a history of impairment. An employer can’t discriminate against an employee based on his or
    her previous disability.
  • An employee who the employer regards as disabled. This is true even if the employer is wrong, and the employee
    is not actually disabled. If the employer discriminates against an employee based on its incorrect belief that the
    employee has a disability, the employee is protected by the ADA.

Defining “Disability”

A disability for purposes of the ADA is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
What constitutes a major life activity is broadly defined to include basic tasks (like walking, reading, bending, and
communicating), as well as major bodily functions (such as functions of the immune system, normal cell growth,
digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions).

If an impairment doesn’t significantly limit a person’s ability to perform a major life activity, it isn’t a disability protected
by the ADA. Temporary ailments also don’t count as disabilities. For more information on whether specific ailments are
considered disabilities, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) website at

Who is a Qualified Worker With a Disability?

Only qualified workers with disabilities are protected by the ADA. A qualified worker with a disability is someone
capable of performing the essential duties of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation by the employer.

The essential duties of the job are those tasks that are fundamental to the position. Ancillary duties don’t count. For
example, a call center’s customer service representatives may answer phones, draft correspondence to dissatisfied
customers, and resolve customer complaints. If business is slow, the employees may also file or restock office supplies.
The customer service tasks are probably essential duties of the job, while the “filler” tasks probably aren’t.

Reasonable Accommodation

If needed, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation -- an adjustment or modification that allows the
employee to do the job -- to a qualified employee with a disability. The employer isn’t required to guess whether a
reasonable accommodation is needed, though once an employer knows of the need for an accommodation, it must meet
that need. Also, the employer isn’t required to provide the particular accommodation an employee requests if another
accommodation will do. But the employer must engage in the “interactive process," a dialogue with the employee about
accommodations that will meet that person’s needs.

Undue Hardship

The employer doesn’t have to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so would create an undue hardship. An
undue hardship means significant difficulty or expense to the business. These factors determine whether an
accommodation creates an undue hardship:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation
  • the financial resources of the employer (a larger, more successful business can usually afford to do more than a
    smaller one)
  • the nature of the business, including size, composition, and structure, and
  • accommodation costs already incurred in the workplace.

If the cost of an accommodation threatens the financial viability of the organization --whether because the company is so
small or the cost is so large -- it’s probably an undue hardship, and not required. However, according to the EEOC, the
majority of accommodations cost less than $500. For most employers, that makes them reasonable and easy to

© 2010 Nolo
Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Nolo, Copyright 2009,

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urie Law Firm LLC represents employees and employers throughout Northern New Jersey and Central New Jersey, including  
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