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Disability Discrimination

November 22, 2013

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) amended by Congress in 2008 through the ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 comprise the federal statutes prohibiting employment discrimination based on disability. Employers with 15 or more employees are covered by the ADA. The ADA protects qualified individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, individuals with a record of such an impairment, and individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment. Certain types of impairments, however, are not treated as disabilities under the Act, such as current drug or alcohol use. Transitory impairments such as a broken arm or leg that heals normally in a few weeks or months are not covered by the Act.

In 2008, through the ADAAA, Congress amended the Act to broaden the scope of protection for disabled employees and job applicants. The ADAAA provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of “major life activities” including:

  • Caring for oneself
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Walking
  • Standing
  • Lifting
  • Bending
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Reading
  • Concentrating
  • Thinking
  • Communicating
  • Working


The amendments made other significant changes to the Act to make the ADA’s coverage broader and more inclusive.

Employers covered by the ADA are prohibited from discriminating against employees and job applicants in all employment practices, including, but not limited to, job application procedures, hiring, firing, promotions, compensation, training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.  The Act also covers recruitment, advertising, tenure, layoff, leave, fringe benefits, and all other employment-related activities. Additionally, it is illegal to harass an employee or job applicant because of a disability.

Employees qualify for protection under the ADA if they are disabled and qualified for the position in question.  To be recognized under the ADA as a “qualified individual with a disability,” a person must have the skills, experience, education, or other requirements of the position that he or she holds or seeks.  The individual also must be able to perform the “essential functions” of the position either with or without reasonable accommodation.  Not being able to perform marginal or incidental job functions, however, should not disqualify an individual.

If an employee or job applicant is qualified to perform the essential functions of a job but is limited by his or her disability, the employer may have to consider whether a “reasonable accommodation” can be made.  A reasonable accommodation is a change in the work environment that would ensure that a disabled individual would share the same rights and privileges of employment as the employer’s other, non-disabled employees and applicants. An example of such an accommodation would be making an office wheelchair accessible.

A reasonable accommodation does not have to be made, however, if providing the accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” (i.e. providing the particular accommodation would be too difficult or too expensive).If one accommodation creates an undue hardship, the employer must still consider other potential accommodations that do not create an undue hardship.

Protections similar to those found in the federal statutes addressed above are afforded at the state level by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”). Under the PHRA, which applies to employers with 4 or more employees, it is illegal to discriminate against a disabled individual by denying that individual equal employment opportunities.

A charge, or complaint, alleging disability discrimination must be filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) (How to File an EEOC Charge) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”) (How to File a PHRC Charge).  The PHRC requires that a charge be filed within 180 days of the alleged unlawful practice, while the EEOC’s deadline is 300 days.  The EEOC and PHRC investigate charges of discrimination to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the alleged discrimination occurred.  Disabled employees or job applicants who prove successfully that an adverse employment action was taken against them based on their disability may obtain remedies including compensatory and punitive damages.

It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee or applicant who has filed a charge of discrimination, complained about discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination proceeding.

Employees and job applicants who work for, or apply for jobs with, employers in the City of Pittsburgh are afforded additional protections against disability discrimination by the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (“CHR”).

Employees and job applicants who work for, or apply for jobs with, employers in Allegheny County are afforded additional protections against disability discrimination by the Human Relations Commission Code of Ordinance.

Click the following links for more information and facts about the ADA and ADA regulations, policy and guidance, and statistics.

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