Disability Discrimination and the Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) serves as a landmark act in protecting those with disabilities in the workplace.  The ADA not only protects disabled works against certain types of discrimination, it also requires businesses to ensure that their workplaces are friendly to both disabled workers and customers, with numerous building requirements (such as those regarding wheelchair access). Massachusetts has a similar set of legal protections in Chapter 151B.

What Types of Disabilities are Protected Under the ADA and Similar Laws?

The prohibition against discrimination on the basis of a disability protects a broad range of persons and conditions. Those with “traditional” physical disabilities, such as persons in a wheelchair, are covered, but the law also covers persons with chronic health conditions. Federal and state law define “disability” in similar ways as meaning:

(1) a physical or mental impairment that
(2) substantially limits
(3) one or more of the major life activities of such individual.

The fact that one might be able to manage a disability with medication or through other means does not change one’s “disabled” status. For instance, many people with diabetes are able to manage the condition well through medication and diet, but they still qualify as disabled under the law.

What Types of Disability Discrimination is Illegal?

Disability discrimination occurs in many ways. The traditional examples are lower pay, failing to promote a disabled person, and excluding disabled persons from certain positions. However, if a disability truly prevents one from performing the essential functions of a position, then it is not discrimination to refuse to employ a person with such a disability. The law only protects qualified disabled persons. A qualified disabled person is one who can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

What are the “Essential Functions” of a Job?

The essential functions of a job are the ones in which a person must absolutely be able to perform.  As an example, in a package delivery job, the essential duties might be to load trucks with boxes up to a certain weight, drive along prescribed delivery routes, and unload boxes and bring them to the front doors of recipients.  While a disabled person might be able to drive, if the person was also not capable of loading and unloading boxes, then likely he or she would not be able to fulfill an essential component of the job.  Unless the person could show that there is some reasonable accommodation that would allow he or she to load and deliver packages, then the employer would not be required to offer him or her a job.

The Requirement to Provide “Reasonable” Accommodations to Disabled Employees

Employers are also required to grant reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. Examples of such accommodations include modifying work schedules to permit doctor visits and/or regular self-treatment and making the workplace and work conditions more usable and accessible for a disabled employee. An employer may only refuse to grant a qualified disabled employee an accommodation when it can demonstrate that such accommodation would pose an undue hardship.

Whether an accommodation is “reasonable” or not, and whether the accommodation poses an “undue hardship” on the employer, will be fact-based.  Certainly, accommodations that do not impose any costs on the employer will almost never be considered an “undue hardship,” like if an employee needs time off for doctor visits and changes to an employee’s shift schedule can be made.  Accommodations that require minor expenditures, such as purchasing low-cost special equipment, will also usually not be seen as an “undue hardship.”

How Can We Help You With Your Disability Discrimination Matter?

We invite you to call us to learn how we can help.  There is no fee to call us about your matter, and when we learn about your situation we can then determine if we can help.

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