The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against applicants or employees with disabilities. The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to perform their jobs.
The ADA protects employees from discriminatory treatment, including being fired because of a disability. To get the benefits of the ADA’s employment provisions, an employee must:
- have a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and
- be qualified for the position.
How is Disability Defined?
Not all physical or mental conditions are disabilities under the ADA. An employee has a disability only if he or she falls into one of these categories:
- The employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, without taking mitigating measures into account.
- The employee has a record or history of such an impairment.
- The employer incorrectly regards the employee as having a disability.
Major life activities are activities of essential importance to every day life, such as walking, seeing, breathing, learning, and caring for oneself. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the neurological, endocrine, or respiratory systems, are also major life activities. This means that serious conditions that have not yet manifested as outwardly debilitating still qualify as disabilities. For example, many types of cancer wreak havoc on the body’s internal functioning (such as proper cell growth or normal immune system function) before they substantially limit someone’s ability to breath, walk, and so on.
The regulations interpreting the ADA provide a list of impairments that will “virtually always” qualify as disabilities, because of their effect on major life activities. These impairments include deafness, blindness, intellectual disabilities, missing limbs or mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Who Is Qualified For a Position?
An employee is qualified for a position if both of the following are true:
- The employee satisfied the prerequisites for the job (such as education, experience, skills, and licensing).
- The employee is able to perform the essential functions of the position, with or without a reasonable accommodation from the employer.
An employer need not keep on an employee who can’t do the job, even if the employee’s problems stem from a disability. However, the employer may not fire an employee just because the employee needs a reasonable accommodation. And, an employee who is able to perform the job’s essential functions may not be fired for inability to perform marginal job duties.
When Termination Violates the ADA
The ADA prohibits employers from firing a qualified employee because of the employee’s disability or history of disability, or because the employer incorrectly regards the employee as having a disability. Here are some examples:
- An employee takes time off work for cancer treatment. The employee is cleared to return to work and can perform all of the job’s essential functions. If the employer fired or demoted the employee based on his cancer diagnosis or history of cancer treatment, that would be disability discrimination. As long as the employee can perform the job’s essential functions, the employee is protected by the ADA, even if the employee needs an accommodation (such as occasional time off work for medical appointments).
- An employee has bipolar disorder. She reveals her condition to her manager, who fires her. There is no problem with her performance, but the manager believes that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and unreliable. This is disability discrimination: The manager is acting on the basis of bias and stereotypes, not the employee’s actual abilities and performance on the job.
- An employee works as a salesperson for a department store. After she is reprimanded for eating on the sales floor, she informs her manager that she has diabetes, and must eat and drink throughout the day to maintain proper blood sugar levels. The manager fires her because she won’t be able to follow the rules. This violates the ADA: The employee needs a reasonable accommodation for her disability, in the form of permission to eat and drink on the floor or breaks to allow her to meet her needs out of sight of customers. An employer may not fire an employee because the employee requires a reasonable accommodation.
Do You Need a Lawyer?
If you believe you were fired because of your disability, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you assess the facts, figure out how strong your claim is, and decide how to proceed. If you want to take legal action, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state’s fair employment practices agency, within the deadlines set by law.