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The Americans with Disabilities Act:
Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions

What is the ADA?
The ADA is a federal civil rights law for people with disabilities, comparable to civil rights law passed in the 1960s for other minorities. It covers employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, and telecommunications for the deaf.

Why do we need it?
43 million Americans have physical or mental disabilities. Too often they are excluded from the mainstream of American life by attitudes and inaccessible environments. 67 percent of all people with disabilities are unemployed, even among college graduates. The ADA benefits all of us. Each of us has a 20 percent chance of becoming a person with a disability and a 50 percent chance of having a family member with a disability.

Who does the ADA cover?
All people with disabilities, visible and hidden, including:

  • a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life functions (eating, breathing, caring for oneself, working, walking, etc.), OR
  • a person with a record of such an impairment (even if that record is inaccurate), OR
  • a person who is regarded as having such an impairment.

Some people are explicitly excluded from coverage, including:

  • current users of illegal drugs (but those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse are covered, and an employer may continue to conduct drug tests on employees for illegal drugs.)
  • those with "sexual behavior disorders" such as transvestitism or transsexualism, AND
  • those who have the conditions of compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania.

What does the ADA not cover?
Housing except for hotels and other temporary housing (see the Fair Housing Act Amendments), buildings with primarily religious or private functions.

What about state and local laws providing rights to people with disabilities?
If the state and local laws have stricter requirements, they still apply. For example, Illinois has stricter building requirements and does not have exemptions for religious entities.

If you have a family member or friend with a disability, are you covered?
The ADA prohibits discrimination against a person who is "associated with a person with a disability." Thus, it would be illegal, for example, for a restaurant to refuse to serve a non-disabled person just because that person was with a person with a disability.

Title I: Employment

What employers are covered by the ADA?
Employers with 15 or more full or part-time employees are subject to the provisions of the ADA. Employment agencies, labor unions, and agencies providing fringe benefits or training programs are also covered.

What employees are covered by the ADA?
In general, the ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified person with a disability. There are no affirmative action requirements in the ADA. An employer can still hire the most qualified person for the job as long as the disability is not used to disqualify a person.

A "qualified person with a disability" is one who is able to perform the essential functions of a job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

The "essential functions" of a job include those job tasks which are fundamental to the position, rather than marginal. For example, an essential function for a receptionist is to greet and direct visitors, not to hang coats. Employers should revise job descriptions to reflect the essential functions and approximate time spent on each task.

"Reasonable accommodation" is defined by the ADA by example and must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Examples in the statute include:

  • making facilities physically accessible;
  • job restructuring;
  • part-time or modified work schedules;
  • reassignments to a vacant job;
  • acquisition or modification of equipment or devices;
  • adjustment or modification of examinations, training materials or policies;
  • providing qualified readers or interpreters; and
  • other similar accommodations.

Reasonable accommodations might include, for example, allowing an employee to nap on the job after a seizure or permitting a clerical worker to use the accessible executive bathroom.

How does an employer know if an accommodation is needed and which accommodation to offer?
It is the applicant's or employee's responsibility to request an accommodation. Employers should discuss the need for accommodation with the applicant or employee and investigate possible accommodations with groups serving people with disabilities and the Federal Job Accommodation Network. An employer is not required to provide the most expensive accommodation or the accommodation that the employee prefers, but it must allow the employee do his job.

Are there any limits on the amount of money an employer is required to spend on "reasonable accommodations"?
Accommodations are not reasonable if to provide the accommodation would result in undue financial or administrative burden. The ADA looks to the budget of an entire entity for financial burden; a fundamental change in a program is an administrative burden.

Thus if an applicant who had learning disabilities, including short-term memory deficits, would need a full-time partner to be able to safely administer pesticides or herbicides, and in that position an employee traditionally worked alone, an employer could argue that to provide the accommodation would be both an undue financial and administrative burden. However, if the applicant only needed someone to read the directions once and then could safely complete the tasks, the defense of undue burdens would not be successful.

Can an employer have job standards without discriminating against people with disabilities?
An employer must assure that qualification standards are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Qualification standards, employment tests and other job-selection criteria must be analyzed to assure that qualified employees with disabilities are not screened out, whether intentionally or not, unless the criteria is essential for the safe and adequate performance of the essential elements of the job.

For example, to require a person to demonstrate the ability to pick up weights of 25 pounds or more would only be allowed if the employer can show that lifting such weights are basic elements of the job and that the tasks cannot be assigned to another employee or otherwise accommodated. Employers should match any employment requirement against the job description which defines the essential elements of the job. An employer may ask any applicant how he would accomplish certain job tasks (e.g., asking an applicant with visual impairments about word processing; ask an employee who has been on medical leave due to severe asthma how he would be able to complete his landscaping assignments).

Can an employer ask about the disability or require an applicant to take a medical examination?
An employer must eliminate pre-employment medical tests or inquiries. An employer cannot require any medical tests, or ask the employee or his references about medical or worker's compensation history, or ask even general questions about an applicant's health until after a job or promotion is offered. Post-employment medical examinations are only allowed if an offer has been made and all employees in the same or similar positions are required to take the test and the results of the examination are kept in a confidential file, and the results will not be used to withdraw the offer of employment unless the examination revealed that the applicant is not qualified.

Can an employer refuse to give an employee medical or other insurance coverage because it will raise the cost?
An employer must offer the same terms, conditions or privileges of employment to all employees, regardless of disability, and must not enter into contracts with any organization providing training, insurance or any other privilege of employment which discriminates against people with disabilities. Insurance, employee training, and other employee benefits must be equally available to employees with disabilities.

For example, if an insurance company will not insure an employee with Multiple Sclerosis, then the employer must find another insurer or otherwise comparable benefits. (Pre-existing claims, exemptions, or limitations on types of treatment - not types of illness - are acceptable if all employees are treated the same.) If the company has yearly parties for employees in an inaccessible location, the location must be changed.

What if the cost of insurance will increase not because of the employee, but his/her spouse or child?
An employer cannot discriminate against a person with a disability because that person associates with a disability. An employer could not refuse to hire a person or offer different benefits because a spouse or a child with a disability might raise the employer's insurance rates.

What if an employer’s customers or other employees feel uncomfortable around the employee with a disability?
Can the employer ask that employee to work at home, for example? An employer cannot segregate a person with a disability (for example, requiring a sales clerk with a disability to only work in the the stock room). Instead of segregating the employee, sensitize your employees to the rights of people with disabilities and the manner in which they should be treated.

What if an employer believes that the employee cannot perform the job safely, and he/she feels that the employee threatens the safety of employees and others?
An employer may require that an employee not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace. This direct threat must be significant and immediate and must not be based on stereotypical assumptions but on real data. The employee must not be refused the opportunity of employment unless the direct threat cannot be eliminated with a reasonable accommodation.

An employer must research possible accommodations before rejecting an employee based on possible threats to safety. Calls to disability agencies (e.g., the Epilepsy Foundation) or the Centers for Disease Control may be helpful. The ADA has specific rules for food handlers with infectious diseases as listed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Title II: State and Local Government

What are the requirements for state and local governments?
Are they different from privately owned public accommodations?
Similar to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, no state or local government entity may discriminate on the basis of disability in its programs or services. In addition to that general prohibition, state and local government entities must assure that all of its programs and services, when viewed in their entirety, are accessible. Thus every program must be accessible, but not every facility must be accessible.

Accessible features must be maintained in working order. All newly constructed or altered streets and walkways must have curb ramps regardless of the source of funding. The requirements apply not only to the state and local government entity, but also any private entity with which the government contracts to provide services. Thus, no government should contract with an entity which is totally inaccessible.

What constitutes discrimination by state and local governments?
Providing unequal, less effective, different or separate aids, services or benefits; providing services through an agency which discriminates; or denying the right to participate in planning or advisory boards are discriminatory. Using criteria or methods of administration, site selection for facilities, and licensing or certification which would have the effect of discrimination on the basis of disability violates the ADA. Services must be provided in the most integrated setting possible. Examples would include using written applications or only providing services in inaccessible locations.

If a government contracts with a private entity, are they subject to Title II?
Yes. If the government contracts with a private entity to provide services, then the delegate agency must comply with Title II (and will also have Title II obligations).

Are there specific requirements for transportation?
Yes. Both Title II and Title III (public accommodations offered for transportation services offered by private entities) provide specific (and lengthy) requirements for transportation services offered by state and local governments and private operators.

In general:

  • All new public buses and commuter trains must be accessible (lift-equipped, proper signage, warning symbols, etc.). For those people with disabilities who cannot use mainline transportation, paratransit (door-to-door) service must be offered with service response time, cost and availability comparable to the mainline service.
  • At least one car per commuter train must be accessible; key stations must also be accessible.
  • Over the road buses (Greyhound) will be "studied."
  • All new Amtrak trains must be accessible; one car per train must be accessible; intercity rail stations must be accessible by 2010.
  • New buses purchased by private entities not in the business of transportation (e.g., hotel shuttle services, buses offered to tour facilities such as the Chicago Botanic Garden) which seat more than 16 people (including the driver) must be accessible; if the service is "demand responsive" (available on demand) not all buses need to be accessible. If the buses purchased hold fewer than 16 people, the entity providing the service must assure that the service "when viewed in its entirety" is accessible to people with disabilities. The entity must be able to show that it can meet the demand for its services by people with disabilities within the same time frame as it meets the demand by non-disabled persons.
Are air carriers and airlines covered by the ADA?
Air transportation is not covered by the ADA, but is covered under the federal Air Carriers Act.

Title III: Public Accommodations

What is a public accommodation?
Public accommodations are any place, building, or outdoor space which a member of the public can enter with or without a fee. It does not include "private clubs" (those for which membership must be voted on by other members) and operations owned or operated by religious entities.

Categories of public accommodations listed in the ADA are:

  • places of lodging (e.g., hotels, motels)
  • establishments serving food and drink (e.g., restaurants, bars)
  • places of exhibition or entertainment (e.g., theaters, stadiums)
  • places of public gathering (e.g., auditoriums, convention halls)
  • sale or rental establishments (e.g., bakeries, clothing stores, video stores)
  • service establishments (e.g., professional offices of doctors, dentists, lawyers, gas stations, funeral parlors)
  • stations used for public transportation
  • places of public display or collection (e.g., museums, gardens, galleries)
  • places of recreation (e.g., parks, zoos)
  • places of education (e.g., private schools)
  • social service centers (e.g., homeless shelters, day care centers)
  • places of exercise or recreation (e.g., gymnasiums, golf courses).
What in general must a public accommodation do or not do?
A public accommodation:

· cannot deny goods or services because a person has a disability or is associated with a person with a disability,
· cannot offer only unequal or separate benefits, AND
· must offer services in the most integrated setting possible.

Special programs for people with disabilities can still be offered, as long as the programs offered to all other people are still available to those with disabilities.

May a public accommodation require people with disabilities to meet certain standards of policies, especially safety standards?
A public accommodation must not use eligibility criteria or standards which screen out or tend to screen out people with disabilities unless it can be shown these criteria are necessary for the safe provision of these services. Safety considerations must be based in real, immediate threats of danger to others, not on stereotypical assumptions. In addition, a public accommodation must make reasonable modifications in policies, practices and procedures unless it would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods and services offered.

Although pets are not allowed, service animals must be allowed in gardens or other public accommodations. A "no-touching" policy may be necessary for delicate art work or fragile plants even though people with visual impairments may be denied the full enjoyment of these objects.

What special accommodations must public accommodations provide?
A public accommodation must provide, unless to do so would impose an undue administrative or financial burden, the following:

Auxiliary aids and services, including:

  • sign language interpreters,
  • assistive listening devices and headsets,
  • brailled, large-print, and taped texts,
  • TV decoders, and
  • TDD/TTY (text telephone for the deaf, hearing and speech impaired).
Most of these items are relatively inexpensive and readily available. 15-point type, which is obtainable is most software programs or through an inexpensive update, is sufficient as large print for most users. TDD/TTYs, which are simple to use and do not require a separate phone line, start at $250; $500 TDD/TTYs have printers with which to record the conversation and built-in answering machines. Braille costs about 30 cents per page.

Auxiliary aids and services do not include devices or assistance of a personal nature, e.g., eyeglasses, hearing aid, or assistance with toileting.

What are the requirements for physical access for public accommodations?
A newly constructed public accommodation must meet all of the physical access requirements of the ADA Access Guidelines (ADAAG), unless a state standard is stricter.

For example, in Illinois, most of the state standards in the Illinois Accessibility Code (IAC) are stricter, so the IAC should be followed. The ADAAGs give an exemption to the general requirements of an elevator in new construction if the building is less than 3 stories tall or has less than 3,000 square feet per story (with certain exceptions to the exemption). The IAC has no such exemption and thus would have to be followed.

A public accommodation being remodeled must have the part being altered accessible to the "maximum extent feasible" according to the ADAAGs. If the part being altered is a primary function area (e.g., training center), then that area must be connected to the main entrance by an accessible route which includes accessible bathrooms, drinking fountains, etc. along the route.

It is possible that a public accommodation will have to follow parts of both the ADAAGs and a state’s access code. An existing public facility which is not undergoing alterations must be made accesiible if it is "readily achievable," meaning "without much difficulty or expense," according to the ADA. An entity should look at its total budget versus the cost of the features to determine whether the cost of accessibility would be undue. Examples of "readily achievable" alterations are: ramps, curb ramps, rearranging furniture, moving plants, widening doorways, putting tactile markers on elevators. Compare the cost of the alteration to the cost of decorative items.

If an existing facility cannot be made accessible, then it must provide service in an alternative manner, e.g., free delivery, taped tours of inaccessible exhibits, dixie cup dispensers on water fountains.

"Commercial facilities," meaning facilities not open to the general public but whose operations "affect commerce" (and everything does) must follow the rules for newly constructed or remodeled buildings.

Are there special criteria for professional examinations and courses?
The ADA specifically requires that any organization which offers examinations or courses related to secondary or postsecondary education, professional or trade purposes (e.g., SATs, law boards, CPA examinations, GREs) must offer them both in an accessible location and in an accessible manner.

Title IV: Telecommunications for the Deaf

What must be provided under this Title?
Any provider of local or long distance telephone service must provide a relay service for people who are deaf. Under this service, people with TDD/TTYs who are calling a party without a TDD/TTY, and vice versa, can make the call through a relay service, which will transmit the call via TDD/TTY or voice, depending on need.

What other requirements does Title IV have?
The only remaining requirement is that all public service announcements funded in whole or in part with federal funds must be close-captioned, meaning that a person with a special TV decoder will see the captioning.

Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

What provisions are in this Title?
Several important provisions and some of lesser importance are included in this section. They include:
  • The ADA shall not be construed to apply a lesser standard than that already in existence under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794 et seq.) or to invalidate any state or local laws (such as the Illinois Accessibility Code) which have stricter provisions.
  • The ADA will not prohibit an insurance company from using sound actuarial data to administer risks, even if the effect is that people with disabilities will be charged more or denied coverage, but it must not be used as a subterfuge to deny coverage.
  • The ADA shall not be construed to require a person to accept an accommodation.
  • There shall be no state immunity from action under the ADA, but Congress remains exempt, although it must abide by certain internal requirements.
  • There is a prohibition against retaliation for filing a charge or opposing a discriminatory practice; retaliation will constitute a separate offense.
  • Attorney’s fees shall be awarded to the prevailing party.
  • Various responsibilities for technical assistance and rule-making are outlined for the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Council on Disability.
Certain exclusions from the definition of "individual with a disability" are specified, inclusing homosexuals, current illegal drug users, and those with certain conditions (compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, sexual behavior disorders).

Council for Disability Rights

Knowing your rights is the easy part. Exercising them can be a bit trickier.

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