Celebrations of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act involve both the past and future. President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law 30 years ago, making the U.S. the first to create legal protections for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

The landmark law has been used to physically transform America, making transportation, housing and public spaces much more accessible today than they were three decades ago. The ADA has also opened the education system to children and adults with disabilities.

Disability discrimination in employment

The signing of the ADA was also a sea-change in American workplaces. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants with disabilities. Employers cannot discriminate in:

  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Promotions
  • Pay
  • Training
  • Scheduling
  • Recruitment
  • Social activities

The ADA also restricts the questions employers can ask about a job applicant’s disability before making a job offer.

Reasonable accommodations

It also requires employers with at least 15 employees to make reasonable accommodations to allow workers with disabilities to perform their jobs. Reasonable accommodations can take many forms:

  • Flexible scheduling
  • Modifications to desks, workstations and work areas
  • Accessible parking
  • Allowing an employee’s service animal into work spaces
  • Job reorganization
  • Providing unpaid leave for medical appointments
  • Reassignment
  • Modifications to training methods or materials

Many other reasonable accommodations are possible, of course. It should be noted that businesses are not required to make accommodations that impose undue hardship on the employer.

Who’s protected by the ADA?

The federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that you are protected “if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The ADA also protects you if you have a history of such a disability, or if an employer believes that you have such a disability, even if you don’t.”

It’s important to point out that though the ADA provides powerful protections of employees’ civil rights, those rights are little more than words on paper if they are not enforced by workers who suffer disability discrimination.

Fighting back against discrimination can take several forms, including the filing of an internal complaint with the company’s Human Resources department, filing a discrimination complaint with the EEOC and filing a disability discrimination lawsuit.