Q: What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
A: The ADA is a federal law that prohibits some employers from discriminating against people because of their disabilities. Importantly, the ADA also requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” so that people with disabilities can do their work (42 U.S.C. § 12112). Discrimination against individuals with disabilities is also prohibited by Pennsylvania state law.
Q: What counts as a “disability” under the ADA?
A: The ADA defines “disability” as: 1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; or 2) a record of such an impairment; or 3) when people treat you like you have such an impairment (42 U.S.C. §12102(2)). Some things are obviously “disabilities” under the ADA. For example, if you are paralyzed from the waist down, you are substantially limited in the major life activity of walking. But it is less clear if other impairments are “disabilities” under the ADA. There have been many lawsuits trying to figure out if specific impairments are “disabilities” protected by the ADA. Some other examples of “disabilities” include bad back problems, having AIDS and being HIV-positive, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder.
Q: If you think that you have a “disability”, what “reasonable accommodations” does my company have to make?
A: A “reasonable accommodation” is any change to your workplace that your company makes that allows you to perform the important functions of your job. Employers must make “reasonable accommodations” to fit your situation. There are many ways to make “reasonable accommodations”, such as changing the physical structure of your workplace, getting you special equipment, or changing your work schedule. For example, your company may have to instal a ramp, provide you with a reader, or let you work in a room by yourself, depending on your disability and your company’s resources.
Q: Will your boss have to make any accommodation that you need to work?
A: No. There are limits to what your company will have to do. An employer does not need to accommodate you if it would be extremely difficult or expensive (considering the company’s size) (42 U.S.C. §12112(5)). Furthermore, the ADA only requires reasonable accommodations for you to be able to work, not the best possible accommodations.
Q: You’re applying for a job. Should you tell them about your disability?
A: Probably not. Even though discriminating against someone because of a disability is illegal, companies still do it. When you are applying for a job, the company cannot ask you about your health (42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(2)). Your employer can ask you if you can do the job. You probably shouldn’t volunteer any information about your disability, unless you need to be accommodated to fill out the application.
Q: You’ve gone through the interviewing process and been conditionally offered a job. Can they make you pass a physical exam before giving you the job?
A: Yes. However, the company must make all incoming employees have a physical exam and can only refuse to hire you based on the physical if it shows that you would be unable to perform the job even with reasonable accommodations (42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(3)).
Q: You’ve been hired. Should you tell them about your disability?
A: Maybe. If you want an accommodation, you must tell your boss about your disability. You should make a written request for a specific accommodation. Your boss may ask for proof of your disability (a doctor’s note). Your company must then make necessary accommodations within a reasonable time. If you do not want an accommodation, there may be no need to tell your employer about your disability.
Q: If they discriminated against you because of your disability, or won’t accommodate you, what should you do?
A: You should contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). Your company is not allowed to retaliate against you for filing a complaint with the EEOC or PHRC. Be aware that there are time restrictions on filing complaints. Usually, you only have 180 days to file a complaint with the PHRC and 300 days to file a complaint with the EEOC (43 P.S. § 959(h), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1)).
You can reach the EEOC at:
William S. Moorhead Federal Building
1000 Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Voice: (800) 669-4000 / Text Telephone: (412) 395-5904
You can reach the PHRC at:
301 Fifth Avenue
Suite 390, Piatt Place
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Voice: (412) 565-5395 / Text Telephone: (412) 565-5711