Definition of Americans with Disabilities Act

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is federal legislation that prohibits employers from discriminating against candidates and employees with a disability.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The ADA requires employers assure hiring and employment practices provide equal access and opportunity. For workers with a disability or those perceived to have a disability, the ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations to ensure that access.

ADA requirements open the door for job seekers and candidates to gain employment. Business leaders can accommodate workers independently or with the assistance of the US Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which provides clarity and guidance free of charge.

Why is the ADA good for business?

The definition of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prompts business leaders to expand employment opportunities to a more diverse, inclusive community. A culture of inclusion that values the contributions of workers from all walks of life is good for business.

Research shows organizations with a diverse workforce are more profitable than their non-diverse counterparts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital components for businesses to attract and retain talent and to promote their brand in the marketplace.

The ADA helps businesses realize a fully inclusive work environment. When companies actively recruit and employ a diverse workforce, they see gains in innovation, performance, and profitability. They also enjoy promoting a culture of employee respect and value.

History of the ADA

President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law in July 1990. The Act resulted from work by the National Council on the Handicapped (today National Council on Disability, or NCD). Four years earlier, the council issued a report, Toward Independence.

The report outlined employment challenges and recommended a new law to raise awareness and protect the rights of persons with a disability.

  • By 1991 detailed requirements and regulations concerning employment practices were created.
  • In 1992 these rules applied to employers with more than 25 workers.
  • In 1993, that number was reduced to businesses with 15 or more full-time or full-time equivalent employees.

After the enactment of the ADA, people across the country started filing lawsuits. Many disputed its definitions and terms. In 1999 the Supreme Court heard three significant cases that had been brought to the lower courts, significantly limiting the interpretation of the ADA.

Their majority opinion held that a person with a ‘surmountable, correctable condition’ was not disabled and had no rights under the ADA. They ruled only people with ‘the most severe and severely limiting impairments should be considered disabled, to keep from ‘diluting’ membership to this minority class.’

Advocacy groups, the public, and Congress disagreed.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADAAA redefined terms of the Act, including:

  • ‘Disability’
  • ‘Major life activities’
  • ‘Being regarded as having such an impairment’

These changes clarified who was protected under the ADA and gave more workers the right to request accommodation under the law. The ADAAA broadened businesses’ responsibilities to provide access to workers and job seekers.

What does the ADA require?

Although it’s a complex law, the ADA provides general guidance for businesses. While there have been many interpretations of the definitions under the ADA, there are some basics. The Act prohibits discrimination:

  • Against qualified individuals with a disability who can perform the essential functions of the job
  • They must do so with or without a reasonable accommodation, and
  • The accommodation must not pose an undue hardship on the employer

The Act prohibits discrimination in every aspect of employment. It covers both applicants and workers. Businesses may not exclude candidates or employees from any term or benefit of employment based on disability.

The ADA is an evolving law, often updated following challenges or claims. No matter how it expands, understanding its basic definitions helps businesses comply and expand their reach to a more diverse talent pool.

Employers can seek guidance and free help from the US Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) through their Ask JAN website. They provide clarity on every aspect of the law, solutions, advice, and more.

The ADA is a complex piece of legislation. Frequently used terms associated with the Act are below.

Qualified individual

The first requirement for coverage under the ADA is that the individual is an applicant or employee qualified to do the work.

  • They must meet any necessary requirements for the position
  • Qualifications must be legitimate
  • An organization must show a requirement to perform specific qualification to result in effective work performance

Qualifications can include degree requirements, certifications, or licenses that are a business necessity. Other qualifications, like computer skills or years of experience, are also considered legitimate if they are a business necessity.

A person with a disability who meets the qualifications for a job, either as an applicant or for promotion or transfer, must be equally considered, without respect to disability.


The Americans with Disabilities Act definition of disability was redefined under the ADAAA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A person is considered disabled and protected under the law if they have a record (history) of or are regarded (believed) to have such an impairment.

There are no comprehensive lists of the types of physical and mental disabilities covered under the law. Employers should review any request for accommodation on a case-by-case basis.

Some commonly recognized physical disabilities include:

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Having a speech impairment
  • A person who uses a wheelchair or has artificial limbs

Medical conditions include chronic diseases like MS or diabetes. Medically controlled diseases or those that are in remission are also disabilities. Asthma or cancer are examples. Mental health and developmental issues that include cognitive or mental health disorders are also covered under the ADA.

The ADA protects against perceived disabilities. Even when there is no an impairment. If a business or coworkers believe and act on the belief that a person has a disability, and it negatively impacts an individual’s employment, there may be discrimination. An example may be believing an introverted colleague has mental health issues. Treating a person differently because of that belief means discrimination may occur. Whether true or not.

In limited ways, addictions may have ADA protection. The law considers alcoholism and some forms of substance abuse as disabilities. To enjoy protection under the ADA, the employee must be involved in or have completed some form of rehabilitation.

Substantially limits

To qualify as a disability, the condition must substantially limit one or more major life activities. There is no specific definition of substantial limitations. Some substantial limits are apparent. For instance, someone who is blind has a substantially limited ability to see.

Others are more nuanced. Employees seeking fertility treatments may be healthy overall.  Still, they may be covered under the ADA because, without treatment, they are substantially limited in their ability to have children, which is considered a major life activity.

The goal of the ADA is not to penalize workers who attend to their health needs. Someone with diabetes, for example, is covered even though their condition may be controlled with lifestyle choices and medicine.

The reason diabetes is included: they would be substantially limited without medical intervention.

Some conditions are episodic with occasional flare-ups, like multiple sclerosis. There may not be consistent symptoms, but the diagnosis poses limitations on the employee and qualifies for coverage under the Act.

Employers should consult JAN and look at each worker on a case-by-case basis.

Major life activities

Major life activities include one’s physical and mental being:

  • Walking
  • Hearing
  • Seeing
  • Self-care
  • Manual dexterity
  • Learning, and more.

There is no complete list of major life activities: employers should make determinations case by case.

In 2008, the ADAAA expanded language to include ‘major bodily functions’ as part of major life activities. These include the following systems and their related functions:

  • Immune
  • Reproductive
  • Respiratory
  • Cardiovascular
  • Digestive
  • Neurological
  • Musculoskeletal

Essential functions

To qualify under the ADA, the candidate or worker must be able to perform the essential functions of the position with or without an accommodation.

Job descriptions must clearly outline which duties are essential functions for the position. These are the main tasks of a role — if not performed, they could harm the:

  • Business
  • Employee
  • Others

Considering other tasks that are not essential to the position may not be part of determining an employee or applicant’s qualification for the job.

A worker may spend 95% of their time answering customer calls; there may also be a requirement that they occasionally file. The essential function of the position would be taking calls. The filing would be non-essential.

It is illegal to exclude a candidate from an employment decision based on the job’s non-essential duties if the individual is qualified to perform the essential function.

Reasonable accommodation

The next definition is reasonable accommodation. An employer must consider a worker qualified if they can perform the essential functions with or without a reasonable accommodation. For example, a person in a wheelchair can perform the essential functions of working in a call center. However, the call center desk itself may be too low to accommodate their chair. An ordinary and reasonable accommodation is to elevate the desk, generally with a few blocks.

The implementation of created accommodation solutions must be easy and effective. They don’t have to be the most costly option, and they shouldn’t require extensive reassigning of work. Some accommodations include allowing an employee to clock in later than others so they can take advantage of tailored transportation options.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers solutions to existing accommodation requests and guidance for novel situations. In 2020 JAN reported 56% of workplace accommodations cost employers nothing: the rest about $500. Remote work is popular with all staff and is an excellent accommodation for people with limited mobility.

Undue hardship

Assuming satisfaction of all the other checkpoints, an accommodation’s final test is that it must be reasonable. It cannot pose an undue hardship on the employer. This includes requests that require significant expense or difficulty when measured against a business’s size, resources, and nature.

Determining undue hardships must occur on a case-by-case basis. For example, expensive equipment may accommodate a worker with a vision impairment. Large organizations may be able to easily absorb the cost. However, for a small company, it may be prohibitive. A less expensive piece of equipment may be a reasonable alternative.

It’s the responsibility of the employer to prove an accommodation creates an undue hardship. They will need to verify why the accommodation request was denied along with the basis for the denial, including costs, logistics, etc.

The ADA works for business

The ADA helps people with disabilities access work they otherwise may not have. The Act also helps businesses expand their talent pool to previously underserved demographics.

In 2020 the Department of Labor estimated more than 60 million American workers were helped under the ADA since its inception. The Job Accommodation Network is available to help businesses navigate every aspect of the ADA.

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