The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and became effective in 1992. Expanding the protection afforded by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA represents the most inclusive and far reaching of the nondiscrimination laws since the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA protects otherwise qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability and guarantees equal treatment in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications (Titles I, II, III, and IV respectively), as well as covering miscellaneous issues (Title V) (ADA of 1990, Pub. L. 101–336, 1990).
ADA defines a person with a disability as an individual with (a) a physical or mental impairment that (b) substantially limits one or more major life activities (e.g., seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself, or working), or (c) has a record of such an impairment (e.g., a person recovered from cancer or mental illness), or (d) is regarded as having such an impairment (e.g., severe physical disfigurement) (ADA of 1990, Pub. L. 101–336, Sec. 12102 , 1990). Individuals with minor or short-duration conditions are not covered (e.g., broken leg).
Title I prohibits discrimination against a qualified applicant or employee because of his or her disability in any employment practice or related activity, including recruitment, job application procedures, selection, termination (layoff or firing), promotions, compensation, leaves, training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. All private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions with 15 or more employees are covered. The ADA does not impose any affirmative action obligations, and employers have the right to hire any qualified candidates.
A key concept in the ADA is that of “otherwise qualified.” Otherwise qualified individuals possess the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics or requirements (e.g., legitimate experience or education) and can perform the essential functions of the job successfully with or without a reasonable accommodation. Job modifications (e.g., exchanging job tasks with co-workers, flexible work hours omitting nonessential tasks), environmental changes (e.g., ramps, larger stalls and grab bars in restrooms, automatic door openers, improved lighting), or auxiliary aids (e.g., speakerphones or headsets, adjustable workstations, wrist or arm supports, magnification aids for reading) that allow a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job and do not create undue hardship for the employer are considered reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations may involve modifying workplaces, equipment, or jobs; modifying work schedules; providing qualified readers or interpreters; or appropriately modifying examinations, training, or other programs. These accommodations should be evaluated and made on a case-by-case basis. Employers are not expected or required by law to lower employment standards, provide personal-use items (e.g., glasses or hearing aids), or identify individuals to receive accommodations. People with disabilities must self-identify, provide evidence of their disability, request needed accommodations, and flexibly interact with the employer. Undue hardship is also determined on a case-by-case basis and occurs when the requested accommodation involves excessive financial cost or effort that exceeds employer resources.
People with disabilities who feel that they have been discriminated against can seek legal remedies. Like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, some cases will involve adverse impact or disparate treatment. Additional ADA cases concern the employer’s refusal or failure to accommodate. Litigation will determine whether the individual’s disability interferes with work efficiency or poses a risk or hazard to others (e.g., person’s disability is an infectious disease) or if an accommodation creates undue hardship for the organization.
Title II protects qualified individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, benefits, or activities of a public entity (e.g., a state, an agency, political subdivision, any commuter authority). Each service, program, or activity must be operated such that it is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities unless it would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or an undue financial and administrative burden. Title II also requires the accessibility of new construction and covers the modification of existing buildings when other methods are not effective in achieving accessibility. Public transportation (e.g., buses, subways, trains) is also covered and must be accessible. Exceptions for providing services in situations where safety and health are jeopardized are also included when they are based on objective criteria and not the result of stereotypes or generalizations.
Title III covers private organizations that provide goods, services, and programs. These organizations, including restaurants, hotels, banks, theaters, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, retailers, museums, libraries, parks, schools, and day care centers, cannot deny access on the basis of a person’s disability and must make facilities accessible. Title III requires all new construction of places of public accommodation be accessible and requires reasonable modifications to existing facilities.
Title IV makes available telecommunications (telephone and television) devices and services for hearing and speech-impaired users. It requires local and long distance telephone carriers to establish relay services for callers with hearing and speech disabilities who use telecommunications devices (e.g., telecommunications devices for the deaf [TDDs] or teletypewriters [TTYs]) or third-party communications assistants. It ensures confidentiality of these transmissions and sets standards for service. Title IV also requires closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements.
Title V deals with a wide range of issues, including retaliation, insurance coverage, construction, state immunity, attorney fees, illegal drug use, exclusions from the definition of disability, and instructions to federal agencies (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] and Department of Justice [DOJ]) for enforcement of the statute. The key protection in this provision is the prohibition of (a) coercing or threatening, or (b) retaliating against the disabled or those attempting to aid a disabled person who files a charge or opposes a discriminatory practice under the ADA.
General acceptance of the law and its mandates is reported in all areas. The old adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same” applies to the effectiveness of this act. Although advancements in accessibility to employment, commerce, technology, telecommunications services, housing, and public services, facilities, and programs have been achieved, the vision of full participation has not materialized, and substantial obstacles remain. The EEOC and DOJ, through enforcement efforts, have obtained substantial monetary settlements and nonmonetary benefits (e.g., reasonable accommodation, policy changes, training and education, job referrals, union membership) for individual workers. The National Council on Disability (NCD) details steady improvement in the efficiency and procedural consistency of enforcement activities. However, large differences between disabled and nondisabled populations are reported in employment, graduation rates, income, home ownership, use of computers, access to transportation and Internet, health care, participation in a range of activities including entertainment, socializing, attendance at religious services, and political participation. Clearly, significant advances need to be made to improve the quality of life for more than 54 million Americans living with a disability.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. No. 101–336. (1990). Retrieved from http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/ statute.html
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- National Council on Disability. (2000). Promises to keep: A decade of federal enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Washington, DC: Author. Available from http://www.ncd.gov
- National Council on Disability. (2001). National disability policy: A progress report, November 1999–November Washington, DC: Author. Available from http://www.ncd.gov
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