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The Americans with Disabilities Act 20th Anniversary

Twenty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. This landmark civil rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, and other areas such as access to public places.  Since then, the ADA has helped people with disabilities fulfill the American vision of equal opportunity for all.

One way the ADA achieves equality in employment for people with disabilities is by requiring employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” when necessary for them to perform the essential functions of the job.  These can be as simple as a ramp to enter a building, a computer program to convert written words into speech, or a quick work break to monitor blood sugar or take medicine.  Of course, the usual anti-discrimination provisions—no harassment on the basis of disability, no refusing to hire or promote someone due to disability—apply as well.

The EEOC takes a multi-pronged approach to combating employment discrimination because of disability, including educating the public—disabled people, other employees and employers alike—about the law’s provisions in meetings, publications, and on its website; investigating charges of disability discrimination; mediating to resolve complaints informally; and litigating cases in federal court.  The majority of disability discrimination charges are resolved at the administrative level and never get to federal court.

The growing need for this law can be seen in these statistics:

  • 1993: 15,274 charges of discrimination filed with EEOC, which obtained $15,496,811 in relief for 1,851 people though its administrative process;
  • 2009: 21,451 charges of discrimination filed, roughly a 30% increase.  EEOC got $67,826,112 in relief for 3,238 people;
  • From 1993 to 2009, ADA charges rose from 17.4% of all charges filed with the EEOC to 23% of all charges filed as ADA charges became a greater part of the EEOC’s workload;
  • During the same period, the EEOC filed 874 lawsuits claiming violations of the ADA, collecting a total of $86,633,804 for victims of disability discrimination.

Because some courts took a narrow view of the ADA’s provisions, especially who could be considered as disabled under the law, Congress responded in 2008 by passing the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).  This law made clear that courts needed to focus their attention on the illegal discrimination – not on whether the victim was disabled within the meaning of the law.

With the new tools of the ADAAA, the EEOC will continue its rigorous enforcement of these important laws, ensuring that employment be based on abilities, not denied due to disabilities.