Job Applicants and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Two professionals face to face in office, woman in wheelchair, holding document
••• PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified applicant with a disability. The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees and to state and local government employers.

In addition, there are state laws which require reasonable accomodations for people with disabilities. Check your state Department of Labor website for information on regulations in your location.

ADA Definition of Disability

The ADA defines an individual with a disability as a person who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, (2) has a record or history of a substantially limiting impairment, or (3) is regarded or perceived by an employer as having a substantially limiting impairment.

An applicant with a disability, like all other applicants, must be able to meet the employer's requirements for the job, such as education, training, employment experience, skills, or licenses. In addition, an applicant with a disability must be able to perform the "essential functions" of the job the fundamental duties either on her own or with the help of "reasonable accommodation." However, an employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation that will cause "undue hardship," which is significant difficulty or expense.

Some important points related to applying for employment include:

Reasonable Accommodation for Interviews

Employers are required to provide "reasonable accommodation" -- appropriate changes and adjustments -- to enable you to be considered for a job opening. Reasonable accommodation may also be required to enable you to perform a job, gain access to the workplace, and enjoy the "benefits and privileges" of employment available to employees without disabilities. An employer cannot refuse to consider you because you require a reasonable accommodation to compete for or perform a job.

It is best to let an employer know as soon as you realize that you will need a reasonable accommodation for some aspect of the hiring process. An employer needs advance notice to provide many accommodations, such as sign language interpreters, alternative formats for written documents, and adjusting the time allowed for taking a written test. An employer may also need advance notice to arrange an accessible location for a test or interview.

You must inform the employer that you need some sort of change or adjustment to the application/interviewing process because of your medical condition. You can make this request orally or in writing, or someone else might make a request for you (e.g., a family member, friend, health professional, or other representatives, such as a job coach).

What the Employer Can't Ask

The ADA prohibits employers from asking questions that are likely to reveal the existence of a disability before making a job offer (i.e., the pre-offer period). This prohibition covers written questionnaires and inquiries made during interviews, as well as medical examinations. However, such questions and medical examinations are permitted after extending a job offer but before the individual begins work (i.e., the post-offer period). Examples of prohibited questions during the pre-offer period include:

  • Do you have a heart condition? Do you have asthma or any other difficulties breathing?
  • Do you have a disability which would interfere with your ability to perform the job?
  • How many days were you sick last year?
  • Have you ever filed for workers' compensation? Have you ever been injured on the job?
  • Have you ever been treated for mental health problems?
  • What prescription drugs are you currently taking?

Job Qualifications

An employer does not have to hire you if you are unable to perform all of the essential functions of the job, even with reasonable accommodation. However, an employer cannot reject you only because the disability prevents you from performing minor duties that are not essential to the job.