The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to any individual with a disability. Most notably, the ADA protects these types of individuals:

  • An individual who is currently disabled.
  • An individual who has a history of disability.
  • Individuals who are perceived (even if incorrectly) to have a disability.

The primary function of the ADA is to provide employees and job applicants that have a disability with an equal opportunity in the workplace. Any employer with at least 15 employees is subject to the equal opportunity requirements of the ADA, and therefore must provide disabled workers with:

  • A fair opportunity to apply and be considered for jobs that they are qualified for.
  • An avenue to pursue and compete for promotions.
  • Access to quality benefits.
  • Protection from harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act applies to both public and private organizations. Institutions, non-profits, and every other type of organization is subject to the requirements in the ADA.

Disabled workers' median income


How does the Americans with Disabilities Act define a disability?

The ADA defines a disability in three unique ways. Employers need to be aware of these criteria so they know how to move forward when dealing with a disabled worker. The ADA defines a disability as:

  • ”If he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking,  seeing, hearing or learning)
  • “If he or she has a history of a disability (such as cancer that is in remission)
  • “If he or she is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six  months or less) and minor (Even if he does not have such an impairment).

What is a reasonable accommodation?

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation for employees or job applicants with disabilities, as long as the changes do not impose undue hardship for the employer. “Undue hardship” is considered to be any accommodation that is significantly difficult or expensive for the employer.

A “reasonable accommodation” is when an employer modifies the work environment to help people with disabilities apply for a job or to help them perform their job. That might include such things as purchasing equipment or accessible materials, making changes to the workplace, job-restructuring, offering flexible working arrangements or modified work and leave schedules, and/or job policy modifications. Most accommodations do not require employers to reinvent the wheel, and removing barriers may benefit others in the workplace. Additionally, there are tax credits available to certain small businesses that make accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Can employers ask job applicants to take disability or medical exams during the application or interview stage?

An employer MAY NOT ask a job applicant to answer medical questions or take a medical exam before officially offering a job. Employers cannot ask a job applicant if they have a disability, or how they may have become disabled, or about any prior workers’ compensation history. However, they can ask applicants whether they can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

An accommodation isn't overly burdensome


A first time violation will typically result in a civil suit against the employer. This could cost an employer upwards of $55,000 (and $110,000 for any subsequent violation). Any additional penalties and fines will only cause that number to rise. Thankfully, employers can take active steps to comply with ADA requirements, such as:

  • Employers should be sensitive to the needs of their past, future, and present day employees. Keep all employee medical  and personal information confidential.
  • Adopt a comprehensive approach to ADA compliance, ensuring that your hiring and employment practices do not  discriminate and that you are taking steps to provide a flexible work environment.
  • Plan training sessions for staff on how to work with coworkers and serve customers with disabilities.
  • Conduct an audit. Evaluate current processes and work environments and note potential barriers to people with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities will likely apply for a job with your company at some point, so it is recommended that employers start accommodating those employees as soon as possible.
  • Maintain your company’s personnel files. Take note of the jobs you post, job descriptions, applicant resumes, and the reasons you hire a candidate. Keep those files on record for as long as you can.
  • Partner with local, state, or federal agencies and companies that specialize in providing employers with guidance  throughout the employee administration and equal opportunity process.