Americans with Disabilities Act: How it Affects You
Has your child been rejected by a preschool or excluded from a field trip because a teacher was afraid to use his or her EpiPen? Does a moldy carpet at work or school make you sick? Does stale smoke in offices, hotel rooms or conference centers make it hard for you to take part in routine business activities?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that gives you the right to ask for changes where policies, practices or conditions exclude or disadvantage you. As of January 26, 1992, public entities and public accommodations must ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to and equal enjoyment of all facilities, programs, goods and services.
The ADA borrows from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment and education in agencies, programs and services that receive federal money. The ADA extends many of the rights and duties of Section 504 to public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, stores, doctors' offices, museums, private schools and child care programs. They must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. No one can be excluded or denied services just because he/she is disabled or based on ignorance, attitudes or stereotypes.
Does the ADA Apply to People with Asthma and Allergies?
Yes. In both the ADA and Section 504, a person with a disability is described as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or is regarded as having such impairments. Breathing, eating, working and going to school are "major life activities." Asthma and allergies are still considered disabilities under the ADA, even if symptoms are controlled by medication.
The ADA can help people with asthma and allergies obtain safer, healthier environments where they work, shop, eat and go to school. The ADA also affects employment policies. For example, a private preschool can not refuse to enroll children because giving medication to or adapting snacks for students with allergies requires special staff training or because insurance rates might go up. A firm can not refuse to hire an otherwise qualified person solely because of the potential time or insurance needs of a family member.
In public schools where policies and practices do not comply with Section 504, the ADA should stimulate significant changes. In contrast, the ADA will cause few changes in schools where students have reliable access to medication, options for physical education, and classrooms that are free of allergens and irritants.
How Will the ADA Work?
In most cases, employees and employers, consumers and businesses, and administrators and students will work together to improve conditions and remove barriers to promote equal access and full inclusion.
Marie Trottier, Harvard University's Administrator of Disability Services, explains that her role includes educating nonallergic managers, colleagues and coworkers about the needs of people with environmental sensitivities. She also trains staff in education and employment policies, benefits and procedures.
"Changes depend as much on interpersonal consideration as they do on legal rights," she says. "It shouldn't be uncommon for people with asthma and allergies to get the same respect for their needs as people with more visible disabilities."
When Ms. Trottier arranges for accommodations in offices, classrooms and student housing, she considers the nature of the disability and the specifics of each situation. She might install an air conditioner or arrange for an office with a window that opens. She has relocated a microwave oven and reorganized office spaces to help people with allergies avoid cooking odors.
Employees might need prior notice of renovation or lawn care projects so they can modify their schedules to avoid the irritants and allergens.
Professors may ask students not to wear scented products to class. Students affected by dust, paper fibers, or ink can have someone borrow library materials for them or they can use an on-line computer system. Ms. Trottier says that "all of these options for students and employees require time and energy, flexibility and creativity, more so than money." A sign in her office underscores her point, "Attitudes are the real disabilities."
Making the ADA Work for You
If you or your child would like consideration due to asthma or allergies, speak with a school administrator, manager, employer, human specialist or disabilities service coordinator. He or she should know the procedure for collecting necessary information and planning appropriate changes, aids or services. You can call on a variety of sources for advice and creative practical ideas.
Under Section 504, public schools and programs cannot avoid their responsibility by claiming to have limited funds or resources. Nor can they impose a "disparate impact" on people with disabilities. The ADA requires public accommodations to make changes, except in cases where an "undue burden" would result.
The law does not define "undue burden." It depends on the organization's size and the real costs of the changes. The business or program must show that it properly assessed the individual's needs and tried to find the necessary .
Don't be Afraid to Speak Up
The ADA prohibits retaliation, harassment, or coercion against individuals who exercise their rights or assist others in doing so. If you feel you have been treated unfairly, you may file a complaint with the U.S. Attorney General who refers complaints to the appropriate agency. The Attorney General can bring lawsuits to seek money damages and civil penalties in cases of general public importance, or where there is a "pattern or practice" of discrimination.
Individuals can also file a private suit to get a court order requiring a business or program to make necessary changes and to pay attorney's fees. Other remedies may include reinstatement in your job and back pay.
The ADA is Evolving
Court decisions and rulings will slowly define how the ADA will affect us. The real momentum for change will come as we work creatively together to promote the inclusive attitudes and environments that fulfill the promise of the ADA for ourselves and our children.
SOURCE: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. First created 1995; fully updated 1998; most recently updated 2005.
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) Editorial Board