Americans with Disabilities Act: Employment

September 1, 2011 | Aging Services Risk, Quality, & Safety Guidance

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990 and amended in 2008, is a landmark civil rights law that set in motion a legislative and enforcement system designed to give equal rights to people with disabilities. The purpose of ADA is “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities and to provide strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” Through its various titles, ADA prohibits discrimination in employment, access to goods and services, transportation, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

ADA’s Title I, the subject of this Risk Analysis, prohibits disability-based discrimination in job application procedures, hiring, advancement or discharge of employees, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

Employers covered by ADA’s Title I must be familiar with statutory changes made in 2008 and federal regulatory changes issued in 2011 that affect their compliance obligations. These changes came about in response to a series of U.S. Supreme Court opinions that since 1999 had interpreted ADA in a restrictive manner. Consequently, lower courts made determinations that individuals with substantially limiting impairments and serious diseases were not disabled under ADA, resulting in their exclusion from the law’s protection. Congress believed that the courts’ interpretations of the law failed to reflect its intent to provide equal rights to individuals with disabilities and consequently Congress made changes to the act through the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). ADAAA was signed into law by President George W. Bush on September 25, 2008 (42 USCA § 12101), and became effective January 1, 2009.

ADAAA expands the definition of disability and is intended to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under ADA to establish that he or she has a disability within the meaning of ADA. ADAAA explicitly rejected the Supreme Court’s interpretation of “disability,” as well as portions of the regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with developing implementation regulations for ADA’s Title I and for enforcing Title I. Accordingly, EEOC amended its regulations and issued revised interpretive guidance to reflect the changes made by ADAAA. The final regulations were published in the Federal Register on March 25, 2011, and became effective on May 24, 2011.

The final regulations confirm that “disability” is to be interpreted broadly and that employers should focus efforts to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities so long as the employee can perform the essential functions of the job. The focus of EEOC’s attention is on whether covered entities have complied with their Title I obligations and whether discrimination has occurred, not on whether the individual meets a definition of disability (29 CFR § 1630.1).

ADA’s Title I covers millions of disabled individuals currently in the workforce. Based on the assumption that 20% of individuals with impairments that EEOC has identified as “virtually always a disability” are members of the U.S. workforce, EEOC estimates that 12 million individuals have had their Title I coverage clarified by the Act’s amendments and final regulations (EEOC). EEOC interpretive guidance makes it clear that the use of the term “Americans” in the title of the ADA is not intended to imply that the ADA applies only to citizens of the United States. ADA protects all qualified individuals with disabilities, regardless of their...

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