The Americans with Disabilities Act: Do You Know Your Rights?

Do you know the difference in meaning between the terms “handicapped” and “disabled?”

Did you know that prior to a quarter century ago, there weren’t curb cut-outs and blue parking spaces at the grocery store? Automatic doors and accessible restrooms in business places?

This year, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) celebrates its 25th anniversary. Signed into law on July 26, 1990, these issues and many more were brought into the body of American discourse via ADA guidelines requiring accessibility to public buildings and accommodation of disabled employees in the workplace.

The title provisions cover employment, public transportation, public accommodations, telecommunications, and miscellaneous provisions. Title I requires the employer to provide special equipment among other things so that the employee can meet the requirements of the job. This would include apps for the vision-impaired employee, work station enhancements to facilitate computer and phone use, additional enhancements to the restroom including moving the work station nearer to it, a rest area where the employee can lie down if needed, and many more.

Title I also includes some protections for the employer. For example, if an accommodation would cause the employer undue hardship—meaning the cost is so high as to be prohibitive—then the employer is exempt from implementing that particular accommodation. The ADA also exempts businesses with less than 15 employees from complying with all provisions. Title I also prohibits a prospective employer from discriminating against a job candidate on the basis of a perceived limitation. This kind of bias behooves us to examine the difference between the terms “handicapped” and “disabled.”

A handicap is a perceived shortcoming that can cause able people to deny the disabled person entre into activities, jobs, social situations, clubs, relationships, schools, etc. Its origin is external, imposed on the disabled person and is not necessarily an accurate assessment of that person’s true abilities.

A disability, on the other hand, is evidence-based via testing, the means by which a doctor makes a diagnosis and assessment of that person’s actual limitations.

There is some inconsistency in term use within the legal and medical communities, however. For example, though the Fair Housing Act uses the term handicap in its policies pertaining to disabled people, its description of a handicap is the same as the ADA’s description of disability. In this case it is simply a matter of word choice. We can all agree that the politically correct choice of term is disabled rather than handicapped—much in the same way that the term retarded is now considered quaint, insensitive and pejorative, while the more contemporary term mentally disabled is more acceptable and sounds less demeaning. (see: Difference Between Disability & Handicap)

Title I of the ADA describes which kinds of medical conditions are legally recognized as causing disabilities. The long list of medical conditions that do qualify include: “Deafness, blindness, an intellectual disability (formerly termed mental retardation), partially or completely missing limbs or mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.” (See: Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990)

It also describes what conditions do not qualify for protection under the ADA guidelines, such as: “. . . kleptomania, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, etc. are excluded under the definition of disability in order to prevent abuse of the statute's purpose." Additionally, other specific conditions such as gender identity disorders and illegal drug use are also excluded under the definition of disability.

Other stipulations in place to prevent abuse of the statute include limits on the monetary award a plaintiff can collect in a discrimination lawsuit against an employer. Should a disabled employee win a discrimination case, the ADA does not allow a disabled plaintiff to directly benefit monetarily unless state law allows it. In most cases, the employer must only provide accommodations at the workplace.

In September 2008, President George W. Bush revised the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 to broaden the definition of disability and extend protection to more people. Like any law or act, the ADA is not a static piece of legislation. It is and will continue to be an ever-evolving set of laws that will be amended time and again as both the public consciousness and advancement in technology urge government entities to broaden and redefine what constitutes a workplace, a disability and an accommodation.

Do you know your rights under the ADA? To learn more, please click on the references below.1-4

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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