The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law under President George H W Bush in 1990. It applies to all private and state-run businesses, employment agencies and unions with more than fifteen employees. The goal of the ADA is to make sure that no qualified person with any kind of disability is turned down for a job or promotion, or refused entry to a public-access area.
How is "disability" legally defined? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (EEOC) website, a person with a disability is anyone who:
1. Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
2. Has a record of such an impairment
3. Is regarded as having such an impairment.
This definition is somewhat controversial.
Some people feel that the wording is so vague a person with any "minor" problem could file frivolous lawsuits for easy money. For example, they say, a person with a stiff neck could neglect certain job duties while hiding behind the ADA. However, this argument demonstrates a couple of misunderstanding about the nature of disabilities and the rules spelled out by this legislation.
First, it is difficult to objectively categorize health problems as "major" and "minor." Many people live with what are called "invisible disabilities." These are problems that are not immediately obvious to an observer because the person who lives with them may not require an apparatus such as a wheelchair or cane, and he or she may not be in any visible pain. However, these health issues can create serious obstacles for the people who live with them. There are certain kinds of heart and muscle conditions that greatly limit how much a person can move about each day.
There are also mental and emotional problems that may not be visible to other people, but pose real challenges for those who live with them. An effort to only protect the rights of those with "major" disabilities while overlooking the "less" disabled could create real problems for people considered "not disabled enough."
Another common misconception about the ADA is that it requires businesses to change their standards, or to be overly accommodating of people with physical or mental challenges to the point of losing profit.
The truth is, this law does not require employees to change the job description of any position. This legislation is intended to target employers who will not hire, or make their offices accessible to, qualified people with disabilities. For example, a studio would not be required to hire a blind photographer, but they would be not be allowed to turn down a photographer who uses a wheelchair simply because they do not want to build a ramp.