The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Protects Employees from Disability Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law passed in 1990 to protect individuals with disabilities from various forms of discrimination in the United States, including employment discrimination.

Who is an Individual with a Disability

The ADA defines a "disability" as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a history of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. This broad definition encompasses a wide range of conditions, recognizing both visible and invisible disabilities. "Major life activities" include tasks like walking, speaking, seeing, hearing, learning, and working, and also the operation of major bodily functions.

Prohibited Disability Discrimination

Under the ADA, discrimination against individuals with disabilities is prohibited in several key areas. These include discrimination based on disability in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. The ADA also includes treats the failure to make a reasonable accommodation as a violation, as discussed more below.

Relationship or Association with an Individual with a Disability

The ADA also protects employees and applicants who have a relationship or association with a person with a disability. This means an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or applicant based on their known relationship or association with a person with a disability. For instance, an employer can't deny an employee a promotion out of fear their performance might suffer because they have a child with a disability.

The Employers’ Duty to Make Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA mandates that employers make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability. This mandate applies to individuals who have an "actual disability" or a "record of" a disability prongs, but it does not apply to an individual who is only "regarded as" having a disability. An accommodation is reasonable unless providing it would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business.

What Makes Accommodations Reasonable?

A reasonable accommodation could include:

Such accommodations are "reasonable" if feasible or plausible in terms of its cost, difficulty of implementation, and effectiveness in addressing the individual's needs.

In practical terms, reasonable accommodations should enable an employee to perform essential job functions or provide equal employment opportunities. This can also extend to enabling a job applicant to equally participate in the application process or enabling an employee to enjoy similar benefits and privileges as their peers without disabilities.

However, the ADA doesn't require employers to eliminate essential functions of a job or lower production standards as a reasonable accommodation. Such requirements would fundamentally alter the nature of the job or the performance expectation. Also, employers aren't obligated to provide personal use items needed for daily activities both on and off the job, like prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, eyeglasses, or personal use amenities. But, items specifically designed or required to meet job-related needs, even if they might be considered personal, can be required as reasonable accommodations.

In any given case, the reasonableness of an accommodation depends on the situation. The EEOC does not have a list of accommodations that are reasonable under given circumstances. Instead, in each case an employer must balance the need to enable an individual with a disability to perform the job against the operational considerations and financial resources of the employer.

What is Undue Hardship?

The flip side of reasonable accommodation is undue hardship. An employer does not have a duty to provide an accommodation if it creates an undue hardship on the employer.

Under the EEOC’s Guidance, "undue hardship" refers to a significant difficulty or expense, and this determination is individualized, based on current circumstances. Factors used to assess undue hardship include:

If a specific accommodation imposes an undue hardship, the employer must seek an alternative that is effective and does not cause undue hardship.

Importantly, an employer cannot claim undue hardship based on customer or other employee prejudices or fears about the individual's disability. Likewise, objections by other employees to an accommodation generally hold little weight, unless due to a significant disruption to their ability to work.

The Accommodation Process

Since reasonable accommodation and undue hardship depend on the circumstances, the EEOC requires employers and employees to engage in an ongoing discussion. It starts when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation for their disability and continues until a reasonable accommodation is found, or the employer determines that no accommodation can be made without an undue hardship.

During this process the employer may ask questions that will inform them about the employee’s request for an accommodation. In many instances, the disability and the type of accommodation required may be obvious, limiting the need for a detailed discussion. However, in situations where the disability or the required accommodation isn't obvious, the employer may ask questions about the nature of the disability and the individual's functional limitations to identify an effective accommodation. The employer can also ask for reasonable documentation that shows that the person has an ADA disability, and that the disability necessitates a reasonable accommodation. If there are multiple reasonable and effective accommodations available, the employer can choose the one that is less expensive or less burdensome.

If the individual refuses to provide requested reasonable documentation, they are not entitled to an accommodation. Similarly, if an individual rejects an accommodation that is reasonable and adequate and, as a result, cannot otherwise perform the job functions, they will not be considered qualified for the position. Conversely, if the employer fails to initiate or participate in an informal dialogue after receiving the request for accommodation, they could be liable for not providing a reasonable accommodation.

If a case ends up in court, the employee need only show that an accommodation seemed reasonable on its face. The burden then shifts to the defendant/employer to provide case-specific evidence proving that reasonable accommodation would cause an undue hardship in its particular circumstances.

The ADA Prohibits Most Medical Examinations and Disability Related Inquiries

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulates employer “medical examinations” and “disability related inquiries.” A "disability-related inquiry" means a question likely to elicit information about a disability, including questions about the nature and severity of an employee's disability, genetic information, prior workers' compensation history, prescription drug use, and other inquiries.

A "medical examination" is a procedure or test seeking information about an individual's physical or mental impairments or health. Factors that determine whether a procedure is a medical examination include:

Examinations may include vision tests, blood analyses, nerve conduction tests, psychological tests, and diagnostic procedures like x-rays or MRIs.

The ADA does not prohibit certain types of tests, including:

Other laws may regulate some of these tests, but the ADA does not prohibit them as medical examinations.

Similarly, questions that are unlikely to elicit information about a disability are permissible, such as general well-being inquiries, inquiries about non-disability-related impairments, the ability to perform job functions, current illegal drug use, and information for emergency contacts.

The Three Stages of Medical Examination Regulation

The ADA regulates disability related inquiries and medical examinations in three stages of the employment process:

These restrictions apply to all employees, not just those with disabilities.

The first stage (pre-offer) prohibits all disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, even if job-related. The second stage (post-offer but pre-employment) permits disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, regardless of their job-relatedness, provided all entering applicants in the same job category are treated the same. The third stage (post-employment) allows for disability-related inquiries and medical examinations only if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

An otherwise prohibited inquiry is permissible (i.e., it is job related) if the employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that the employee's medical condition might:

Observable symptoms indicating a possible medical condition that could impact job performance or safety can justify an inquiry. Similarly, inquiries and examinations following a request for reasonable accommodation may be job related if necessary to find a reasonable accommodation.

Employers must Keep Medical Information and Test Results Confidential

The ADA mandates that any medical information obtained through a disability-related inquiry or medical examination or voluntarily provided by an employee must be treated as confidential. Such information can only be shared in limited circumstances with supervisors, managers, first aid and safety personnel, and government officials investigating ADA compliance.

An employer may make these requests if they have knowledge of an employee's medical condition, observed performance issues that can be reasonably attributed to a medical condition, or if they have reliable information from a credible third party regarding an employee's medical condition.


The Americans with Disabilities Act represents a major milestone in ensuring equal rights and opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Mandating against discrimination, it encompasses a broad range of physical and mental impairments, covering all aspects of employment. Employers are obliged to provide reasonable accommodations unless it causes significant difficulty or expense. The law also regulates medical inquiries and examinations, mandating confidentiality for disclosed information. However, actualizing reasonable accommodations demands nuanced dialogue between employers and employees, balancing the needs of the individual with the operational and financial considerations of the employer.

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