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ADA & Section 504 Basics

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA), passed by Congress in 1990, were both the result of Congressional findings that, as the population ages, there are growing numbers of people with physical and mental disabilities, and that social isolation and discrimination against these people have been pervasive problems in our society. The purpose behind Section 504 and the ADA is to remove artificial barriers that have prevented the full involvement of disabled people in the wide range of activi­ties and pursuits, including employment, to which non-disabled people have had largely unfettered access. In this brief space, we will touch only on the employment-related provisions of these laws.

Section 504 prohibits employment discrimination by any entity that receives federal funds and explicitly includes public-school districts. The ADA amended some of the definitions within Section 504 and extended protections to private employers. Because the employment provisions of both laws are substantially similar, they'll be discussed here as if they were one and the same.

Generally, no covered employer may take an adverse employment action against a qualified individual with a disability sole­ly on the basis of that person's disability. In order to prevail on an employment discrimination claim under the acts, the employee first must prove, within the meaning of the acts, that he or she has a disability and was qualified for the job.

The term "disability" is defined as:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  2. a record of such an impairment; or
  3. being regarded as having such an impairment.
Merely having a diagnosis of a physical or mental impairment does not make a person disabled within the acts. The impairment must have such a significant effect that it seriously limits one or more major life activities, including walking, seeing, hearing or performing manual tasks such as household chores and personal hygiene. An example of a person who does not actually have a disability but may be regarded as having one is a person known to have been diagnosed with HIV, but who has not contracted full-blown AIDS. Although such a person may not be limited in any substantial ca­pacity, people who know of the diagnosis may treat that person as if he or she was.

A "qualified individual with a disability" is one who can perform the essential functions of the employment position, with or without reasonable accommoda­tion. Reasonable accommodations may include such acts as job restructuring, modified work schedules and reassign­ment to a vacant position. A reasonable accommodation does not include one that would pose an undue hardship on the employer.

As you can see, these inquiries and interpretations are extremely individual­ized and subject to determination on a case-by-case basis. The same request may be deemed perfectly reasonable in one work setting and be deemed an undue hardship on the employer in another.

An employer faced with an ADA or Section 504 claim may defend itself by showing evidence of an adequate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse job action. For example, an employee with severe asthma and allergies who claims he was terminated because he requested an expensive air-filtering system may be denied the claim based on evidence that his job performance was deficient or that he was unable to get along or work coop­eratively with other employees. To prevail on the claim, the employee must prove the disability was the sole basis for the adverse job action.

For more information on these acts, con­tact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's toll-free customer service line at (800) 669-4000 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time (with a 24-hour service of recorded FAQs) or go to the EEOC Web site at and click on "Disability."

Please contact NWPE at 800-380-6973 if you require any assistance in this area. See also this resource from

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