When my children were little, I was always grateful for the ADA and its requirements to make public buildings accessible. Automatic doors and ramps helped tremendously when pushing a stroller with one hand and holding a toddler with the other. At the end of July, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated its 25th anniversary. This is the perfect opportunity to refresh our knowledge of this legislation and what it means in the workplace.

In the workplace, providing accommodation to disabled employees can seem like a difficult prospect. How much will it cost? How it is impact the business and other employees? However, accommodating disabilities is not as daunting as you might fear. It’s been a legal requirement for 25 years and it is worth it and not just for disabled employees.

What is the ADA?

In a nutshell, employers with at least 15 employees have to provide a level playing field to qualified employees (and job applicants) through reasonable accommodations.

Let’s start with an observation. As the American population ages, the workforce is aging just the same. Employees have to work more years to qualify for Social Security, they are getting older and are more likely to require accommodation. Sometimes, it is a temporary accommodation (after joint replacement surgery). Other times, it is a permanent accommodation for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart conditions. It’s reasonable to think that we might all need accommodation at some point in our working life.

What qualifies as a disability under the ADA? The definition of a “disability” is far reaching. Individuals are considered disabled if they:

  • Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (e.g. walking, talking, working, concentrating, etc.),
  • OR have a history of such an impairment,
  • OR are regarded as having a disability.

A disabled employee is considered “qualified” if he/she is able to perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodations.

How do you define reasonable accommodations?

Most accommodation requests are not onerous. According to the Department of Labor, many disabled employees do not request any accommodation so employing those workers doesn’t generate additional cost.

Of those who do need accommodation, the average cost is about $500. Remember denying an accommodation simply because it is expensive may not fly if your refusal is challenged at the EEOC, the enforcement agency for ADA matters.

Examples of accommodation include flexible work hours, modify dress code rules, allowing somebody to sit (or stand) when the job might requires otherwise, allowing a parking spot close to the door, or a cubicle close to the bathroom.

Engage in the interactive process

This is a fancy way of saying “talk to your employee and understand what type of accommodation they seek.” Often employers make assumption that an accommodation will be difficult and expensive.

Document the entire interactive process.

Keep a written record of:

  • Conversations with the employee,
  • Efforts to identify reasonable accommodations
  • Accommodations actually offered.

If you deny an accommodation request or the employee rejects the accommodation, this needs to be documented in detail. You will be in a better position to defend yourself if you can show a good faith effort at accommodating even if it didn’t work out.

Consider All Accommodation Requests. Even if an accommodation request seems unreasonable on its face, take it seriously and engage in the interactive process.

Train Supervisors

If you have followed by blog posts for any length of time, you know how important this is. Supervisors and frontline managers are the linchpin in employee relations. Train supervisors on how to respond to accommodation requests. More than likely an employee’s request will not include the word “accommodation.” Supervisors need to be aware of circumstances that trigger accommodation requests and know not to ask questions about employee’s medical conditions. All accommodation requests should be handled by Human Resources.

Update Job Descriptions

This is another hot button for me! Employers should regularly review their job descriptions to reflect the reality of the job. All essential functions should be detailed. Beyond the obviously physical requirements of the position (e.g. ability to walk, lift heavy weights), consider the soft skills essential to the position. For example, is getting along with others an essential function? If so, it should be included in the job description.

Remember – Keep Medical Information Confidential

Advise supervisors of the nature of the accommodation, not the disability. In addition, all documentation should be maintained in a confidential medical file, separate from the employee’s personnel file and stored in a different location.