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Reasonable Accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, businesses have struggled with ADA compliance. ADA requirements banning non-discrimination in hiring are relatively easy to follow. But what about "reasonable accommodations?" What are reasonable accommodations in the workplace? Guidance is vague because accommodations depend on each worker's needs and the ability of each workplace to comply.

ADA rules on accommodations remove barriers that prevent workers with disabilities from employment. Accommodations range from the obvious, such as wheelchair access into buildings, to the less so, like assistive communication devices for speech-impaired workers.

Who Does the ADA Cover?

The ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. There are several sections to the ADA. Title I applies to hiring and workplace accommodations. The ADA gives protections to all "qualified workers with disabilities." Businesses must offer equal opportunities to qualified employees who can perform the job with or without accommodation.

covered disability is "any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (like sitting, standing, or sleeping)." It is also anyone with a history of such an impairment or someone perceived as having such an impairment. For instance, someone with diabetes may have no symptoms that would affect their employment. If their employer treats them differently because of their disability, the employer is violating the ADA.

ADA compliance does not force employers to consider all applicants for all jobs. For instance, even with all available technical assistance, visually impaired people cannot become commercial pilots. But, accessibility guidelines change over time. At one time, hearing-impaired drivers could not get a CDL (commercial driver's license) or drive big rigs. Today, assistive technology lets qualified people get their CDLs with an exemption from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Making Reasonable Accommodations

Most ADA guidance on accommodations has focused on public accommodations. Creating general accessibility requirements for public transportation and restrooms is easier than crafting individual rules for each workplace and worker. The EEOC "Primer for Small Business" contains specific guidelines on what small businesses must do under the ADA.

Reasonable accommodations depend on the particular needs of the employee and the workplace. What is "reasonable" at one workplace may not be reasonable, or even needed, at another. The goal of ADA standards is to create equal access for all workers. The employee and the employer must work together to determine the best way to accommodate the employee's needs.

Examples of reasonable accommodations in the workplace can include:

  • Braille, large print, and website caption readers for low-vision or sight-impaired workers
  • Sign language interpreters and TTY devices for deaf and hard-of-hearing workers and those with speech disabilities
  • Barrier removal wherever possible for improved access for mobility-impaired workers. This can be as simple as providing accessible parking spaces and widening aisles

What You Must Do

Your accommodations must do a few things to be ADA-compliant. If an employee requests accommodations, you must discuss the request in good faith. The employee must work with their employer to find a reasonable solution. Some things both sides must consider:

  • The accommodation must be achievable. You may need to alter your existing facilities to accommodate mobility devices, for instance, by widening doorways or aisles.
  • The accommodation must be job-specific. The employee may request communication devices or assistive technology for the workplace. They cannot ask for accommodations that will help them outside the job. An employee can ask for a specific parking spot at the office. They cannot request a disabled placard for their car.
  • The accommodation cannot create an undue hardship for the employer. An "undue hardship" causes significant expense or difficulty based on the business size or the extent of its resources.

Undue hardship is very fact-specific and is not only related to monetary cost. The EEOC has found that more than half of all requested accommodations cost less than $500. But even one that costs nothing out of pocket can still impact your operations. Suppose a worker with an anxiety disorder asks for an accommodation to leave the floor if they feel an anxiety attack coming on. In a large store, this might be fine. Having only one person in the shop in a two-person boutique could pose problems.

What You Don't Need to Do

Employers may ask for more information and documentation about a disability. If a worker asks to bring a service animal to the workplace, an employer may request that the animal be properly certified and restrained.

Employers do not have to alter a job's essential functions or performance standards to create reasonable accommodations. The EEOC gives an example of a hotel requiring housekeepers to clean 16 rooms per day. They would not have to lower this standard as an accommodation.

You can treat violations of rules of conduct, state laws, or company policy like any other workplace disciplinary matter. They are not related to disabilities or illnesses. A disability does not cause sexual harassment.

Employers do not have to consider the accommodation the employee requests as the only alternative. They can offer that if a less expensive or more easily achievable option is available.

Substance Abuse and the ADA

Alcohol and drug use may be a covered disability under the ADA, depending on the nature of the condition. The ADA recognizes alcoholism as a disability. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued guidance stating that the ADA also covers opiate addiction. Illegal drug use is not a disability per se, but the ADA protects people who are in recovery.

In general, employers may prohibit substance use on the job. Allowing an alcoholic worker to keep a flask in their desk is not a "reasonable accommodation." There are some caveats employers should keep in mind.

  • You can have a policy of drug testing applicants or employees as long as you follow EEOC and ADA regulations. People who are legally taking opiates for pain management will test positive for these drugs. You may ask for a doctor's prescription for their medication.
  • Employees who are in rehab for opiate addiction may be on a "maintenance" or "tapering" dose under their doctor's care.
  • The ADA does not cover illegal use of drugs, even legal drugs used illegally. For instance, an employee with a legal prescription for opiates may not share their medication with other employees.

Reasonable accommodations for employees with substance abuse may include:

  • Leaves of absence for in-patient treatment
  • Alternative work schedules, shared schedules, or flex time to allow the worker to attend support meetings
  • Reassignment to a less stressful or physically demanding position
  • Work from home while the employee attends out-patient treatment

If an employee comes to you and tells you they have a substance abuse problem and needs help, you should proceed with caution. The ADA does not cover employees who are actively using illegal drugs, but it does protect those in rehab. An employee using drugs but trying to stop, whose job performance is not affected by their addiction, is in a gray area.

Next Steps: Get Help From a Business Lawyer

Small business owners may need help navigating the intricacies of the ADA. Talk to a business law attorney in your state for legal advice on what rules apply to you. State and local regulations may also apply, and a local attorney can help you follow everyone's rules.

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