Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. A frequently asked question regarding this ADA provision is, what exactly is reasonable? All rules and guidelines for employee accommodations can be found in the ADA literature. Under current guidelines set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there are three types of adjustments or expectations that employers must fulfill in order for their accommodations to be considered reasonable.
Expectations for Accommodating Employees with Disabilities Under the EEOC
First, an employer is expected to make adjustments so that a qualified applicant can apply for their desired position. An accommodation that might be considered reasonable can be as simple as a software program adjusted to the needs of a deaf or blind applicant. Generally, businesses are required to be wheelchair accessible so that both customers and applicants can gain access to the building. At this early point in the employment process, accommodation requirements are minimal as the individual has not yet been hired and is not an employee of the company.
Second, employers are expected to adjust or modify the work environment or the way the job is performed so that the employee can perform his or her job. These changes are expected to be implemented immediately upon hire. These accommodations include programs to facilitate those who are blind or hearing impaired, such as a Braille touch-pad for a blind employee or a phone interpreter for a deaf employee. For those in wheelchairs, special desks and other equipment must be made available. This can also apply to areas of management such as break times, various rules and procedures, or the requirement of certain non-managerial tasks. As a general rule, so long as the employee can function at a level considered on par with his or her peers, the changes are acceptable.
Third, the employer must make adjustments so that employees with disabilities can enjoy the same benefits and privileges as other employees. For instance, there must be a wheelchair accessible bathroom and sink. In the break room, the tables should be set up in a way to make space for a wheelchair to pass.
Employers may require a physician’s note before implementing any additional accommodations. However, this must be an all-encompassing rule at the company enforces for every employee. For example, if a non-disabled employee requests changes to their workspace based on a health problem and a disabled employee was required to produce a physician's note before changes were made to their workspace, the non-disabled employee must also obtain a physician’s note.
Exceptions to EEOC Rules
There are limits with regard to what a court considers reasonable accommodations. According to current law, employers should not be required to alter aspects of the employment if it undermines an essential function of that job. This issue turns on whether the applicant was truly qualified for the position. In addition, if the accommodation would be too difficult or expensive for an employer, then it may not be required.
Current law also protects employers from having to provide personal-use items needed in accomplishing daily activities both on and off the job. Thus, an employer is not required to provide an employee with a prosthetic limb, a wheelchair, eyeglasses, hearing aids, or similar devices if they are also needed off the job. Furthermore, an employer is not required to provide personal use amenities, such as a hot pot or refrigerator, if those items are not provided to employees without disabilities. An example of this would be when a sales employee who has trouble walking requests a cane for use during a shift. Because this cane is an object that the employee should have obtained on their own for day-to-day use, an employer is not required to provide it. However, if in this same example the sales associate is requesting a stool to sit on while at the register, the employer is expected to provide it as it is a reasonable request that will only be used during the work day.
Overall, employers are expected to make basic access modifications for applicants, and further modifications for new hires as soon as the job offer is finalized. For all other requests, an employer has the right to evaluate whether the request is reasonable and practical in allowing the employee to fulfill their job.
If you feel that you have been discriminated against by an employer based on a disability, contact an employment and labor law attorney for help with your particular case.