Diversity & Inclusion

Identifying accommodations for employee who can’t use the stairs

by Michael J. Spooner

Q What is considered a reasonable accommodation for an employee who can’t take the stairs during emergencies or because of maintenance issues with the elevator?  Inspecting an Evacuation Plan

A While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t provide guidance regarding reasonable accommodations for an employee who is unable to use the stairs during an emergency, there are several pieces of information that can help you determine which accommodations are reasonable. Reasonable accommodations must be just that—reasonable. That means they take into account the specific building or workplace in which they will be implemented. Costs, building dimensions, and feasibility of implementation all must be taken into account when determining whether a particular accommodation is reasonable.

ADA requirements

The ADA’s emergency preparedness plan requirements state:

Procedures should be in place to ensure that people with disabilities can evacuate the physical area in a variety of conditions . . . with or without assistance. Adopt policies to ensure that your community evacuation plans enable people with disabilities, including those who have mobility, vision, hearing, or cognitive disabilities, mental illness, or other disabilities, to safely self-evacuate or to be evacuated by others.

The ADA requires you to have an emergency preparedness policy that provides disabled employees the same level of safety as their nondisabled counterparts. To answer your question, identifying a reasonable accommodation for an employee who cannot use the stairs during an emergency requires undertaking general planning with the employee and developing a detailed evacuation plan for all employees.


The input of the employee for whom the accommodation is being designed is necessary to its implementation. Consult with the employee on evacuation issues. Simply consulting the employee is the best place to begin the reasonable accommodation discussion.


The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Disability Employment Policy has provided recommendations on evacuations. However, the recommendations may not satisfy the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation on their own because of the case-by-case analysis required in the reasonable accommodation process. In your case, reasonable accommodations may include purchasing an evacuation chair and planning to take mobility devices (e.g., wheelchairs) if there is a need to evacuate. Providing areas of refuge in the building is an option as long as the areas conform to the nature of the emergency. If there is a significant distance between the employee and the emergency, alternative means of evacuation, horizontal evacuation, and areas of refuge may be alternatives to evacuating through the stairwell.

There are other things to consider as well. In emergency situations, it may not be enough to simply get the employee out of the building; transportation home or to a safe shelter may be required in some circumstances. When it comes to using stairs, employees with mobility impairments are frequently mentioned. However, individuals with vision, cognitive, mental, or other disabilities that make it difficult to use the stairs may also require assistance. Assistance could be as simple as having another employee guide them down the stairs.

Above all else, consult employees with disabilities in your specific office, and ensure they have a safe evacuation route. Because of the fact-intensive nature of the reasonable accommodation process, you should consult with an attorney when implementing a reasonable accommodation.

Michael J. Spooner is a labor and employment attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, practicing in the firm’s Bridgeport, West Virginia, office. He may be contacted at michael.spooner@steptoe-johnson.com.

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