The Americans with Disabilities Act (signed in 1990, amended in 2008) is an important piece of legislation with far-reaching implications for employers and employees alike. There is no doubt that it has played—and continues to play—a fundamental role in protecting the rights of disabled persons who have traditionally been disfavored by the employment market. Under the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees (regardless of part-time or full-time) have an obligation to ensure that their workplaces can accommodate, within reason, the everyday challenges of their disabled employees. But how can a business owner know for certain whether the workplace is fully compliant with the ADA?
The question is hardly academic, as failure to comply with the ADA can subject a business to substantial penalties. The answer is not as simple as many business owners may prefer, but ADA compliance is, in most cases, easily achieved.
The Principle of Compliance
In general, ADA compliance is best thought of as a process rather than as a list of specific requirements. Actions taken by a company to bring the workplace into compliance with the ADA are typically triggered by a request from an employee.
For example, let's consider the employee with a visual impairment. This employee may request a braille keyboard or a special kind of computer screen for magnifying text. The employer is expected to make a reasonable effort to comply with the employee's request, which may or may not include purchasing the necessary equipment for the employee. The employer may decline the employee's request only if it can demonstrate that compliance would be excessively burdensome—e.g., the requested items would be too expensive, or would fundamentally alter the nature of the position. Small businesses that resist complying with a costly accommodation may be more successful than large businesses that balk at the cost because courts often conclude that organizations with substantial revenue are more easily able to afford an accommodation for a disabled worker.
For simple accommodations like the ones requested in the example above, the costs of compliance should be well within reason for most employers. Keep in mind, however, that businesses are not legally obligated to implement the precise accommodation that the worker requests. The ADA only requires employers to provide accommodations that enable the employee to do their job. As a result, it may not be necessary to buy the $300 keyboard the employee asked for if a $200 model has the same capabilities.
It should also be understood that companies do not have to demonstrate compliance with ADA if there are no employees who require accommodations. In other words, a business does not need to keep a supply of accommodative devices sitting around just in case they hire an employee who might need one. The compliance process begins when an employee requests an accommodation, or, alternatively, when it becomes obvious that such an accommodation is necessary for the employee to do the job.
Sometimes, a particular facility may have permanent architectural features that would prevent disabled persons from accessing one or more areas of the building or even from entering the building altogether. Disabled employees need access, but most business owners would not relish the thought of having to remodel an entryway or remove an entire wall to accommodate a disabled employee.
Access is less of an issue for buildings constructed since the ADA was passed, as newer structures must generally be built in compliance with ADA requirements. For businesses occupying older buildings that may not be in compliance, the answer varies. The ADA requires architectural upgrades only when these are “readily achievable.” So, for example, if major renovations are initiated, further renovations that would bring the premises up to ADA standards may be expected. Conversely, requiring a business to initiate major renovations on an older building just to bring it up to ADA standards may not be required, as this might generally be viewed as an unreasonable burden on the business.