Americans with Disabilities Act


Who must comply with Title 1 of the ADA?

Private employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor unions, and joint labor management committees must comply. The ADA calls these covered entities. For simplicity, this article generally refers to all covered entities as employers.

An employer cannot discriminate against qualified applicants and employees on the basis of disability. Covered employers are those who have fifteen or more employees (July 26, 1994), including part-time employees. The ADA's definition of employee includes U.S. citizens who work for American companies, their subsidiaries, or firms controlled by Americans outside the USA. The definition of employer includes persons who are agents of the employer, such as managers, supervisors, foremen, or others who act for the employer, such as agencies used to conduct background checks on candidates. Therefore the employer is responsible for actions of such persons that may violate the law.

Who is Protected by Title 1?

The ADA prohibits discrimination by employers against qualified individuals with disabilities. A qualified individual with a disability is: an individual with a disability who meets the skills, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of a position held or desired, and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of a job.

The ADA definition of a person with disability is an individual who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities.
  • Has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Reasonable Accommodation:

ADA's assurance of nondiscrimination is a critical component of reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are usually done that results in equal employment opportunity for an individual with a disability. An employer must make a reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of a qualified applicant or employee with a disability unless it can show that the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the operation of its business. Some examples of reasonable accommodation include:

  • Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to, and usable by, an individual with a disability.
  • Job restructuring.
  • Modifying work schedules.
  • Reassignment to a vacant position; acquiring or modifying equipment or devices.
  • Adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies.
  • Providing qualified readers and/or interpreters.

How Does an Employer Determine What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

When a qualified individual with a disability requests an accommodation, the employer must make a reasonable effort to provide an accommodation that is effective for the individual (gives the individual an equally effective opportunity to apply for a job, perform essential job functions, or enjoy equal benefits and privileges). In many cases, an appropriate accommodation will be obvious and can be made without difficulty and at little or no cost. Frequently, the individual with a disability can suggest a simple change or adjustment, based on his or her life or work experience. An employer should always consult the person with the disability as the first step in considering an accommodation. Often this person can suggest much simpler and less costly accommodations than the employer might be believed necessary.

For Example:

A small business employer believed it was necessary to install a special, lower drinking fountain for an employee using a wheelchair, but the employee indicated that he could use the existing fountain if paper cups were provided in a holder next to the fountain.

However, in some cases, the appropriate accommodation may no be so easy to identify. The individual requesting the accommodation may not know enough about the equipment being used, or the exact nature of the worksite to suggest an accommodation. The employer may not know enough about the individual's functional limitations in relation to specific job tasks. In such cases, the employer and the individual with a disability the appropriate accommodation. EEOC regulations require, when necessary, an informal, interactive process to find an effective accommodation. The process is described below in relation to an accommodation that will enable an individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job. However, the same approach can be used to identify accommodations and to provide equal benefits and privileges of employment.

A Process for Identifying a Reasonable Accommodation:

  • Look at the particular job involved in order to determine its purpose and its essential functions. It is recommended that the essential functions of the job be identified before advertising or interviewing for a job. However, it is useful to reexamine the specific job at this point to determine or confirm its essential functions and requirements.
  • Consult with the individual who has a disability to find out how his or her specific physical or mental abilities and limitations relate to essential job functions. Identify the barriers to job performance and assess how these barriers may be overcome with an accommodation.
  • In consultation with the individual, identify potential accommodations and assess how effective each would be in enabling he individual to perform essential job functions. If this consultation does not identify an appropriate accommodation, technical assistance is available from a number of sources, many without cost. There are also financial resources to help with accommodation costs.
  • If there are several effective accommodations that would provide an equal employment opportunity, consider the preference of the individual with a disability and select the accommodation that best serves the needs of the individual and the employer. If more than one accommodation would be effective for the individual with a disability, or if the individual would prefer to provide his or her own accommodation, the individual's preference should be given first consideration. However, the employer is free to choose among effective accommodations, and may choose one that is less expensive or easier to provide. The fact that an individual is willing to provide his or her own accommodations does not relieve the employer of the duty to provide this or another reasonable accommodation should the individual for any reason be unable or unwilling to continue to provide the accommodation.

Examples of Reasonable Accommodation Process:

A sack-handler position requires that the employee in this job pick up 50-pound sacks from a loading dock and carry them to the storage room. An employee who is disabled by a back impairment requests an accommodation. The employer analyze the job and finds that its real purpose and essential function is to move the sacks from the loading dock to the storeroom. The person in the job does not necessarily have to lift and carry the sacks. The employer consults with the employee to determine his exact physical abilities and limitations. With medical documentation, it is determined that the person can lift 50-pound sacks to waist level, but cannot carry them to the storage room. A number of potential accommodation are identified: use of a dolly, a hand truck or a cart. The employee prefers the dolly. After considering the relative cost, efficiency, and availability of the alternative accommodations, and after considering the preference of the employee, the employer provides the dolly as an accommodation. In this case, the employer found the dolly to be the most cost-effective accommodation, as well as the one preferred by the employee. If the employer had found a hand-truck to be as efficient, it could have provided the hand-truck as a reasonable accommodation.

A company has an opening for a warehouse foreman. Among other functions, the job requires checking stock for inventory, completing bills of lading and other reports, and using numbers. To perform these functions, the foreman must have good math skills. An individual with diabetes who has good experience performing similar warehouse supervisory function supplies for the job. Part of the application process is a computerized test for math skills, but the job itself does not require the use of a computer. The applicant tells the employer that although he has no problem reading print, his disability causes some visual impairment which makes it difficult to read a computer screen. He says he can take the test if it is printed out by the computer. However, this accommodation won't work, because the computer test is interactive, and the questions change based on the applicant's replies to each previous question. Instead, the employer offers a reader as an accommodation; this provides an effective equivalent method to test the applicant's math skills. An individual with a disability is not required to accept an accommodation if the individual has not requested an accommodation and does not believe that one is needed. However, if the individual refuses an accommodation necessary to perform essential job functions, and as a result cannot perform those functions, the individual may not be considered qualified.

For Example:

An individual with a visual impairment that restricts her field of vision but who is able to read would not be required to accept a reader as an accommodation. However, if this person could not read accurately unaided, and reading is an essential function of the job, she would not be qualified for the job if she refused an accommodation that would enable her to read accurately.

The Undue Hardship Limitation:

An employer is not required to make a reasonable accommodation if it would impose an Undue Hardship on the operation of the business. However, if a particular accommodation would impose an undue hardship, the employer must consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose such hardship.

An undue hardship is an action that requires significant difficulty or expense in relation to the size of the employer, the resources available, and the nature of the operation.

Accordingly, whether a particular accommodation will impose an undue hardship must always be determined on a case-by-case basis. An accommodation that poses an undue hardship for another employer, or even the same employer, or even the same employer at another time. In general, a larger employer would be expected to make accommodations requiring greater effort or expense than would be required of a smaller employer. The concept of undue hardship includes any action that is:

  • Unduly costly.
  • Extensive.
  • Substantial.
  • Disruptive, or that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.

The statute and regulations provide factors to be considered in determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on a particular business:

  • The nature and net cost of the accommodation needed.
  • The financial resources of the facility making the accommodation, the number of employees at this facility, and the effect on expenses and resources of the facility.
  • The overall financial resources, site, number of employees, and type and location of facilities of the entity covered by the ADA.
  • The type of operation of the covered entity, including the structure and functions of the workforce, the geographic separateness, and the administrative or fiscal relationship of the facility involved in making the accommodation to the larger entity.
  • The impact of the accommodation on the operation of the facility that is making the accommodation.

Other Cost Issues:

  • An employer may not claim undue hardship simply because the cost of the accommodation is high in relation to an employee's wage or salary.
  • If an employer finds that the cost of the accommodation would impose an undue hardship and no funding is available from another source, an applicant or employee with a disability should be offered the option of paying for the portion of the cost that constitutes an undue hardship, or of providing the accommodation.
  • The terms of a collective bargaining agreement may be relevant in determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship.

For more Information:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
1801 L St., NW
Washington DC 20507

800-669-EEOC (voice)
800-800-3302 (TDD)

Elizabeth Taylor Issue 1995

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