One of the crucial elements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the requirement it imposes on employers to provide workers with “reasonable accommodations” for mental or physical disability. This means that companies may need to make modifications to the work environment and/or employee responsibilities for employees who have one or more medical conditions recognized by the ADA. In some instances, however, it may not be obvious what is meant by “reasonable.”
The issue of reasonable accommodations has been brought before the courts on numerous occasions, and while it's not always clear what constitutes proper compliance with the ADA, legal precedent has established fairly distinct parameters regarding this issue.
Who Qualifies for Accommodations?
According to the ADA, if an employee can perform the “essential functions” of a particular position once reasonable accommodations have been made, then the employer is obligated to engage with the employee regarding such accommodations (with exceptions that we will explore later on). The essential functions of a position are those duties for which the job exists, as opposed to merely incidental tasks.
For example, if an executive assistant at a company is expected to set appointments, converse with clients via phone, and respond to email messages, then the employee must be able to perform these duties, with or without accommodations. These would all be considered important duties that the position is intended to fulfill. However, if the executive assistant is asked to pick up a Big Mac for the boss at each day's lunch break, then a disabled employee who cannot drive should be allowed to ask another worker to perform this task (or, alternatively, the boss can go get his own Big Mac).
Types of Accommodations
The good news for employers is that most accommodations cost little or no money. One common accommodation is to rearrange office furniture so a wheelchair-bound employee can travel through the office without encountering obstacles. Another is to assign a parking space close to the worksite so a physically disabled worker does not have far to walk. Other examples include giving the worker their own office; reshuffling their work schedule; or supplying them with special keyboards, screen readers, or software designed for disabled employees.
It's possible that an organization cannot supply suitable accommodations without incurring huge expenses or other hardships. What then? The ADA recognizes that there must be a limit to the amount of money and effort that a business can be expected to spend. This is the “reasonable” part of the equation. There are two kinds of cases where a company may be permitted to exempt itself from the obligation to provide accommodations.
Undue hardship – If the company can demonstrate that necessary accommodations would be too costly, too extensive, or too difficult to introduce to the workplace, then the company may be excused from this responsibility.
Direct threat – If the employee cannot be accommodated without posing a threat to the health of coworkers or the public, then the company can request an exemption on these grounds as well. An example of this would be an employee with a medical condition (e.g., seizures) that would make it hazardous for them to operate heavy equipment. Even if the worker can do the job, the risk of a serious accident is still present.
In addition to the ADA, other anti-discrimination statutes require employers to help employees with respect to reasonable accommodations. For instance, employers are compelled by law to accommodate employees in accordance with sincerely held religious belief. They must also accommodate pregnant women who are temporarily unable to perform their usual duties. The “reasonable” qualifier also applies in these cases just as it does in ADA cases.