Frequently Asked Questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, an excellent opportunity to commemorate the contributions of workers with disabilities. ADA compliance has opened doors for many talented recruits and helped many employers retain productive staff.
Like many compliance issues, however, the ADA raises many questions because the stakes are high. Keep reading for answers to frequently asked questions about the ADA and how your organization can stay compliant.
Q: What is the ADA?
A: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law—enacted in 1990 and amended in 2008—that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in public places, transportation, jobs, schools, and businesses open to the public. The purpose of the law is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
The original law is organized into five sections, or “titles”:
- Title I: Employment
- Title II: State and Local Government
- Title III: Public Accommodations
- Title IV: Telecommunications
- Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions
Q: Is ADA Compliance Mandatory?
A: Yes, the ADA’s employment provisions apply to employers with 15 or more workers—including state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor organizations. Both part-time and full-time employees are counted when determining whether or not ADA provisions apply. Businesses with multiple sites must count all employees at these sites. Compliance is also mandatory for most public-facing businesses, such hotels, restaurants, and stores.
Q: Who Enforces ADA Compliance?
A: In general, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces Title III violations through civil penalties and enforces other title violations—including those under Title I (Employment)—through settlement agreements and lawsuits.
However, parts of the ADA are enforced by many other federal agencies, most notably:
- Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
- Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center
- US Access Board
- Federal Communications Commission
- Federal Transit Administration
Q: What is the Penalty for Violating the ADA?
A: Since 2014, the maximum civil penalty for a first violation has been $75,000 with subsequent violations as high as $150,000 each.
ADA settlement agreements and lawsuit damages can be much more expensive. However, according to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, “The ADA does not permit monetary damages to be assessed...in lawsuits brought by individuals.”
Q: Who is Protected under the ADA?
A: According to the ADA, a qualifying disability meets at least one of these definitions:
- a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- a record of such an impairment
- being regarded as having such an impairment
The ODEP clarifies that the ADA protects job applicants with a disability only if they are qualified for a job. The ADA does not provide an exhaustive list of disabilities, but the EEOC has determined the following conditions almost always meet the definition of a disability:
- Intellectual disability
- Missing limbs or mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair
- Cerebral palsy
- HIV infection
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Major depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
Again, this list does not include all possible qualifying disabilities, which could be any impairment that meets the ADA definition.
If an employee requests accommodations for a disability not on the list, the ODEP-sponsored Job Accommodation Network recommends an employer “err on the side of caution and process the accommodation request,” for which “the benefits usually far outweigh the costs.”
Q: What is a “Reasonable Accommodation” under the ADA?
A: The ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to a qualified person with a disability unless it will cause an “undue hardship” on the organization. The EEOC describes a reasonable accommodation as a “modification or adjustment” that enables:
- an individual to perform the essential functions of the position
- an applicant with a disability to have an equal opportunity to participate in the application process and to be considered for a job
- an employee with a disability an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment that employees without disabilities enjoy
Examples of reasonable accommodations could include physical accessibility, job restructuring, modified schedules, and modified equipment.
Q: What is an “Undue Hardship” under the ADA?
A: According to the EEOC, an undue hardship “means significant difficulty or expense and focuses on the resources and circumstances of the particular employer in relationship to the cost or difficulty of providing a specific accommodation.” Undue hardships may be financial, extensive, substantial, or disruptive, but they must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Q: What Should Employers Know About the ADA Compliance and COVID?
A: The COVID pandemic has tested ADA compliance in several ways. Check out these resources for more information:
- ADA Compliance and How it Relates to COVID
- What Should Employers Know About COVID Long-Haulers and the ADA?
- The ADA's Impact on Returning to the Office
You can also stay informed, educated, and up-to-date with ADA compliance and other important topics by using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:
- BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop-shop for HR industry news
- HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
- HR Guides—essential pillars, covering an extensive list of comprehensive HR topics
- BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
- HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics
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