Recognizing Discrimination in the Workplace

Americans have always been fiercely protective of their civil liberties. But that doesn’t mean that certain citizens haven’t been denied their rights. People with disabilities are often discriminated against, especially in the workplace. To help even the score, Congress passed the Americans With disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The law deals with discrimination in a variety of scenarios such as employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.

Title I of the Act deals specifically with employment. To be covered under the ADA, a person must have a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits his/her ability to perform one or more major life activities. The definition also includes a person who has a history of impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as being impaired in this way. It is important to note that the law is deliberately vague as to what constitutes an “impairment”. This allows for a broader legal interpretation that can encompass individuals that are impaired in ways that may not be immediately apparent, but still prevent them from performing life activities.

Title I applies to most employers who employee 15 or more employees for a minimum of at least 20 weeks. This includes:

  • Private Employers
  • State and Local Governments
  • Employment Agencies
  • Labor Unions
  • Legislative and Judicial Branches of the Federal Government


The law does not apply to:

  • Private Membership Clubs such as country clubs, Lion’s Clubs, Elks, etc.
  • Churches and Parochial Schools
  • Native American Reservations


Title I requires covered employers to provide qualified disabled individuals with an equal opportunity to benefit from all employment-related opportunities available to other employees. That means that employers cannot discriminate against disabled persons in matters of recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other privileges associated with employment. It also limits the type of questions that can be asked about an applicant’s disability before a job offer is made, and it requires that employers make “reasonable accommodation” for qualified disabled individuals with physical or mental impairments.

The issue of reasonable accommodation is a significant requirement for an employer to be in compliance with Title I of the ADA. When an employee declares that s/he has a disability, the employer is responsible for providing any necessary accommodations that will make it possible for the employee to perform his/her job. This includes things like installing wheel chair ramps, providing sign language interpreters, or even in some cases changing company policy to create more flexible scheduling so that the disabled employee can tend to medical needs like going to dialysis or getting regular checkups. The only time a covered employer is exempt from this requirement is if it will cause “undue hardship.”

The law recognizes the fact that it isn’t always feasible for an employer to provide all the necessary accommodations that a disabled person might require. That is why the “undue hardship” clause was added. It spells out certain circumstances that exempt a covered employer from providing such accommodations:

  • If the cost to provide the accommodation will have a significant negative impact on the business’ finances, then the employer can claim undue hardship. This is not a handy escape route that employers can take advantage of just to avoid responsibility. Before declaring undue hardship, the employer must prove that s/he tried to find the money to finance the accommodations, but failed. Locating funding includes asking the person with the disability to contribute to the cost of undertaking the accommodation.
  • If the accommodation would alter the manner in which the business operates, the employer can claim undue hardship. For example, a company that uses an assembly line to manufacture products would not be required to slow down the speed of the line in order to accommodate a disabled worker because this would negatively impact production, which would hurt the business financially.
  • If an employee interacts inappropriately with other workers, even if it is because of his/her disability, the employer doesn’t have to accommodate this behavior. In fact, the employer can fire such an individual without fear of being cited as violating the ADA.

The most important point to remember about your rights under the ADA is that the laws are meant as a safeguard to ensure that you receive the same rights and privileges inherent in your employment that any other employee would receive. It is not meant to provide you with license to make excessive demands, or behave in a manner that is clearly harmful to the safety and well being of all of the company’s employees. However, if you believe you are the legitimate victim of discrimination under the ADA, you can contact the nearest Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEOC) to fail a complaint. Log on to to locate your nearest office. Complaints can be made in person or by mail.

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