ADA & Disabilities

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), "reasonable accommodation" depends on the job, not just the employee

Employment law attorneys note that ADA will not force you to make “reasonable accommodations” to the point that they hamper job performance

When the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, some employers went into a tailspin. ADA mandated “reasonable accommodations” for the disabled. That invoked the specter of all manner of expensive changes in plant, procedure and equipment threatening their balance sheets.

The years since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act has calmed these early fears, but the question of what a reasonable accommodation under ADA really is still hasn’t been fully resolved. It probably never will be, in any widespread sense, as what each employer must do to comply with the reasonable accommodation provision of ADA depends on many variables. But according to employment law attorneys John E. Duvall and Peter J. Petesch, one important clarification has become apparent:

The Americans With Disabilities Act’s objective is not to create jobs

“The Americans With Disabilities Act is not an affirmative-action law. It’s an equal opportunity law,” says Duvall, explaining that the objective is not to create jobs for the disabled, but to make it possible for them to fill jobs that would exist in any case.

While that frequently calls for changes in physical arrangements or work procedures, the job still has to get done. ADA’s reasonable accommodation rule cannot force changes to the point that the employer is not getting the performance required to support that part of the business. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Americans With Disabilities Act, equates the ‘reasonable’ in the phrase ‘reasonable accommodation’ with ‘effective,’” the lawyers explain.

When a reasonable accommodation becomes unreasonable

As an example, Duvall noted that while an employer might allow a worker a later start time to provide reasonable accommodation for a daily morning medical procedure, such a change would be unreasonable if the worker was, say, a school crossing guard. And while an employer might grant extra leave on some jobs as reasonable accommodation for a disability, it would be unreasonable if the person’s presence was a main attraction to customers, “as in a star chef at a topnotch restaurant,” says Petesch. “In that case,” he says, “you need to get another chef.”

One area which does not depend on the job, however, is changes required for a disabled person to gain access to a workplace. Ramps, elevators and other structural modifications may still be needed if the person comes in to work. The attorneys, however, offer an alternative.

“Telecommuting amounts to a reasonable accommodation,” says Duvall. “ADA has made us look beyond the walls of an office.”

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