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Discrimination in Hiring and the Americans with Disability Act

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) can be one of the most difficult areas of the law for employers to understand. Jobs typically have specific duties that need to be performed, and the entire point of hiring someone is to find the person who is best able to perform those duties. The ADA, however, significantly limits what you can and can't ask an applicant with regard to their physical abilities. In order to avoid discrimination in hiring, employers must figure out what kinds of employment practices the ADA covers; whether their specific business is covered by the ADA; and then learn how to tactfully and legally inquire about a job applicant's ability to perform the job.

See FindLaw's Disability Discrimination section for a selection of employee-focused articles on the ADA and workplace disability laws.

Employers and Practices Covered by the ADA

The ADA applies to private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions who have 15 or more employees. The ADA applies to all employment-related practices including:

  • Job applications, recruitment, advertising
  • Hiring, firing, layoffs
  • Advancement, tenure, and compensation
  • Training, leave, fringe benefits, and all other employment-related activities

How to Safely Inquire about an Applicant's Ability

Whenever you are designing questions on an application or during an interview, keep this simple rule in mind: you can ask about an applicant's ability to do the job, but you cannot ask about any specific disability. For example, here are two different questions that both get to the same point, but one is likely in violation of the ADA while the other is probably perfectly alright.

Incorrect: "Do you think your physical disability would prevent you from lifting this heavy object?"
Correct: "How would you go about lifting this heavy object?"

The first, incorrect, question asks about a perceived disability and likely would run afoul of the ADA. The second question simply asks the candidate how he or she would go about performing a specific task. Asking applicants about their abilities (rather than disabilities) also naturally lets them talk about their strengths and qualifications for the job, which is the point of the interview.

Be Consistent When Questioning an Applicant's Ability

It is also crucial that you be consistent with your questions. If you ask a potentially disabled person about their ability to perform job-specific tasks, but never asked other candidates, you may still be violating the ADA. Even if the question itself was perfectly legal, as above, the ADA looks past the question itself to see whether you're applying an otherwise legal question in a discriminatory fashion.

Inquiring About Accommodations for Disabled Applicants

Another tricky subject when it comes to dealing with potentially disabled applicants is whether you can ask an applicant if he or she needs any special accommodations. Fortunately, the rule is fairly straightforward:

  • If there is no reason to believe that the applicant is disabled, you cannot ask whether the applicant needs any special accommodation (special equipment or help).
  • If there is a reason to believe that the applicant is disabled, because it's obvious (e.g., the applicant came in a wheelchair) or because the applicant told you about a disability, then you can ask whether the applicant needs any special accommodation.

Employers are Free to Hire the Most Qualified Applicant

Employers can often misread the ADA's anti-discriminatory intentions as requiring them to give people with disabilities special treatment, but an employer is free to select the most qualified applicant available. The key point to remember is that the ADA is trying to ensure that such a decision is based on sound, business-related reasons and not on a person's disability.

Sample Questions Provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Finally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has offered a number of example questions that you can and cannot ask in an interview.

You should never ask:

  • Have you ever had or been treated for any of the following conditions or diseases? (Followed by a checklist of various diseases or conditions.)
  • Have you ever been treated by a psychologist or psychiatrist? If so, for what?
  • Do you suffer from any health-related condition that might prevent you from performing this job?
  • How many days were you absent from work because of illness last year? (You may, however, tell the applicant what your attendance requirements are and then ask whether he or she will be able to meet those requirements.)
  • Do you have any physical defects that preclude you from doing certain types of things?
  • Do you have any disabilities or impairments that might affect your ability to do the job?
  • Have you ever been treated for drug addiction or alcoholism?

You can ask:

  • Can you perform all of the job functions?
  • How would you perform the job functions?
  • Can you meet my attendance requirements?
  • What are your professional certifications and licenses?
  • Do you currently use illegal drugs?

If you have any questions about disability discrimination in the hiring process or have had a claim filed against you, you may want to contact an employment law attorney in your area.

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