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The History of the ADA

Leah Kessler

Enacted in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush, the American with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis disability.  The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of having such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.”  With its passage, for the first time, Congress recognized that physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, and curbed prejudice, antiquated attitudes, and societal and institutional barriers that people with physical or mental disabilities frequently face.  As one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, the ADA ensures that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.

Title I of the ADA (“Title I”) addresses disability discrimination in the workplace, helping individuals with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities.  An important component of the ADA—and a feature that is unique among other civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964—is its requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees.  A “reasonable accommodation” is a change that accommodates employees with disabilities so they can do their job without causing the employer “undue hardship.”  Title I also establishes guidelines for the reasonable accommodation process and addresses medical examinations and inquiries.  Title I applies to employers with at least 15 employees.

On September 25, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act (the “ADAAA”).  These amendments were Congress’s response to a number of Supreme Court decisions—namely Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc. and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams—which limited the rights of people with disabilities.  The ADAAA effectively reversed those decisions by relaxing the standard to show that an impairment is a disability.  By broadening what constitutes a disability, the ADAAA has protected more people from losing their jobs due to disabilities.  In 2017, approximately 26,838 disability claims were brought to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”), a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

While more people than ever are protected by the ADA, as our recent blog on mental health shows, the number of people silently struggling with disabilities at work is likely far more.  If you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of an actual or perceived disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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