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America has made great progress in recent years in removing the artificial barriers that can prevent people with disabilities from achieving economic self-sufficiency and participating fully in our society. But progress can't be taken for granted, and too many of these barriers remain.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment and public services, public and private transportation, public accommodations and telecommunication services. The ADA covers private employers with 15 or more employees, employment agencies and all levels of government. The ADA’s nondiscrimination standards also apply to federal sector employees under section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, and its implementing rules.

A person has a disability for the purposes of the ADA if:

  • He or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities;
  • Has a record of such impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having a condition people would mistakenly perceive as limiting, such as disfigurement.

The ADA does not cover people with temporary disabilities, minor illnesses or active drug users or alcoholics.

The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to enable an otherwise qualified person with a disability to do his or her job.  A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help an individual with a disability apply for a job or perform the duties of a job. An employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it imposes an “undue hardship” on the employer.  An employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation.

In 2008, Congress determined that several U.S. Supreme Court cases narrowed the broad scope of protections intended to be afforded by the ADA and passed the ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”). The ADAAA became effective on Jan. 1, 2009.

The ADAAA makes important changes to the definition of the term "disability." The effect of these changes is to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Some of the most significant changes made by the ADAAA include expanding the definition of “major life activities,” clarifying that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active and an emphasis that the definition of disability should be interpreted broadly.

If you think you are a victim of ADA-covered discrimination:

(1)   Keep a written record of incidents, including a description of the discrimination, what was said, time and place and witnesses.

(2)   Check with others in your workplace who might also be victims.

(3)   If you are a union member, contact your steward.

You also may file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as an individual or part of a group (known as "class action"). The charges must be filed on an EEOC form within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. Federal employees have 45 days to contact an EEO counselor. You can file a charge by calling 800-669-4000 for more information (800-669-6820 for the hearing impaired). Your complaint must include:

  • Your name, address and telephone number.
  • Your job title.
  • A brief description of the problem.
  • When the incident(s) occurred.
  • The type of discrimination you encountered.

For more information, visit the EEOC question-and-answer page about discrimination.

Remember: The best way to protect your rights at work is to gain a voice on the job by forming a union!

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Additional helpful links on the ADA and its amendments:

ADA Information Center with introductory-level and detailed information links, as well as useful business sites

Americans with Disabilities Act Information on the Web listing from the U.S. Department of Justice

The Arc pages of disability-related links (registration required)

Department of Labor: Information on the ADA Amendments Act

Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy

ADA Amendments fact sheet from Cornell University

American Association of People with Disabilities

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