Questions & Answers: Association Provision of the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Title I of the ADA makes it unlawful for any employer with 15 or more employees (including a state or local government employer) to discriminate against a qualified applicant or employee because of a disability in any aspect of employment. In addition to protecting qualified applicants and employees with disabilities from employment discrimination, one ADA provision the "association" provision -- protects applicants and employees from discrimination based on their relationship or association with an individual with a disability, whether or not the applicant or employee has a disability.[1]

The purpose of the association provision is to prevent employers from taking adverse actions based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about individuals who associate with people who have disabilities. Thus, it makes unlawful actions such as refusing to hire an individual who has a child with a disability based on an assumption that the applicant will be away from work excessively or be otherwise unreliable, firing an employee who works with people who are HIV-positive or have AIDS based on the assumption that the employee will contract the disease, or denying an employee health care coverage available to others because of the disability of an employee's dependent. This document explains the requirements of the ADA's association provision and provides examples of how it applies to these and other employment situations.

1. What is the association provision of the ADA and to whom does it provide protection?

The association provision of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a person, whether or not he or she has a disability, because of his or her known relationship or association with a person with a known disability. This means that an employer is prohibited from making adverse employment decisions based on unfounded concerns about the known disability of a family member or anyone else with whom the applicant or employee has a relationship or association.

2. How close does the association or relationship with a person with a disability have to be for an individual to be protected by the association provision?

The ADA does not require a family relationship for an individual to be protected by the association provision. The key is whether the employer is motivated by the individual's relationship or association with a person who has a disability.

Example A: An employer overhears an employee mention to a co-worker that he tutors children at a local homeless shelter. The employer, recalling that the shelter in question is well-known for providing job placement assistance for people living with HIV/AIDS, terminates the employee because it believes that its image will be tarnished if its employees associate with the "kind of person" who contracts HIV/AIDS. The employer has violated the ADA's association provision even if the employee is only minimally acquainted with beneficiaries of the shelter who have HIV/AIDS, because it made an adverse employment decision based on concerns about the disabilities of people with whom the employee has an association.

3. What types of employer conduct does the association provision prohibit?

  • An employer may not terminate or refuse to hire someone due to that person's known association with an individual with a disability.

    Example B: An employer is interviewing applicants for a computer programmer position. The employer determines that one of the applicants, Arnold, is the best qualified, but is reluctant to offer him the position because Arnold disclosed during the interview that he has a child with a disability. The employer violates the ADA if it refuses to hire Arnold based on its belief that his need to care for his child will have a negative impact on his work attendance or performance.

Example C: A restaurant owner discovers that the chef's boyfriend is HIV-positive. The owner, fearing that the employee will contract the disease and transmit it to the customers through food, terminates the employee. This is a violation of the ADA's association provision.[2]

  • An employer may not deny an employee who has an association with a person with a disability a promotion or other opportunities for advancement due to that association.

    Example D: Tiffany, a part-time salesperson at a large appliance store, applies for a full-time position. The manager hiring for the position rejects Tiffany's application because, having heard that Tiffany's mother and sister had breast cancer, he concludes that Tiffany is likely to acquire the same condition and be unable to reliably work the hours required of a full-time salesperson. This is a violation of the association provision of the ADA.

  • An employer may not make any other adverse employment decision about an applicant or employee due to that person's association with a person with a disability.

    Example E: The president of a small company learns that his administrative assistant, Sandra, has a son with an intellectual disability. The president is uncomfortable around people with this type of disability and decides to transfer Sandra to a position in which he will have less contact with her to avoid any discussions about, or interactions with, Sandra's son. He transfers her to a vacant entry-level position in the mailroom which pays less than Sandra's present position, but will allow him to avoid interacting with her. This is a violation of the ADA's association provision.

  • An employer may not deny an employee health care coverage available to others because of the disability of someone with whom the employee has a relationship or association.

    Example F: An employer who provides health insurance to the dependents of its employees learns that Jaime, an applicant for a management position, has a spouse with a disability. The employer determines that providing insurance to Jaime's spouse will lead to increased health insurance costs. The employer violates the ADA if it decides not to hire Jaime based on the increased health insurance costs that will be caused by his wife's disability.

  • Example G: In the previous example, it would also violate the ADA for the employer to offer Jaime the position without the benefit of health insurance for his dependents. The employer may not reduce the level of health insurance benefits it offers Jaime because his wife has a disability; nor may it subject Jaime to different terms or conditions of insurance.

  • An employer may not deny an employee any other benefits or privileges of employment that are available to others because of the disability of someone with whom the employee has a relationship or association.

    Example H: A company has an annual holiday party for the children of its employees. The company president learns that one of its newly hired employees, Ruth, has a daughter with Down Syndrome. Worried that Ruth's daughter will frighten the other children or make people uncomfortable, he tells Ruth that she may not bring her daughter to the party. Ruth has been denied the benefits and privileges of employment available to other employees due to her association with a person with a disability.

  • An employer may not subject someone to harassment based on that person's association with a person with a disability. An employer must also ensure that other employees do not harass the individual based on this association.

    Example I: Martin and his supervisor, Adam, have had an excellent working relationship, but Adam's behavior toward Martin has changed since Adam learned that Martin's wife has a severe disability. Although Martin has always been a good performer, Adam repeatedly expresses his concern that Martin will not be able to satisfy the demands of his job due to his need to care for his wife. Adam has begun to set unrealistic time frames for projects assigned to Martin and yells at Martin in front of co-workers about the need to meet approaching deadlines. Adam also recently began requiring Martin to follow company policies that other employees are not required to follow, such as requesting leave at least a week in advance. Adam has removed Martin from team projects, stating that Martin's co-workers do not think that Martin can be counted on to complete his share of the work "considering all of his wife's medical problems." Though Martin has complained several times to upper management about Adam's behavior, the employer does nothing. The employer is liable for harassment on the basis of Martin's association with an individual with a disability.