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Knowledge and Consistency — The 5 Definitions To Know In The ADA

November 18, 2014
Source: Inside Council

A few brief definitions should highlight some of the issues that arise when a company is faced with a request for a disability-based accommodation The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law with five sections, one of which governs the employment relationship and applies to most businesses with 15 or more employees. As with all federal laws, determining if your company actually meets this threshold can be a complex question.

The employment provisions of the ADA prohibit employers from discriminating against applicants or employees because of a physical or mental disability. This sounds simple enough, but it really isn’t. As an employer, you must have someone or some group in your workplace responsible for knowing the law and its detailed regulations and guidelines. They also need a thorough understanding of any applicable state disability or related statutes, and most importantly, all management must send all disability questions to these ADA staff members.

The ADA prohibits employment decisions (from hiring to firing) that are based on the disability of an applicant or employee. It only protects a “qualified individual with a disability” and requires the employer to provide a “reasonable accommodation” that might allow such a qualified individual to perform the “essential functions” of the job. An accommodation is considered “reasonable” only if it does not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.

Although we cannot fully cover the entire law here, a few brief definitions should highlight some of the issues that arise when a company is faced with a request for a disability-based accommodation.

  1. Disability : A person is “disabled” if she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or the employer regards her as having an impairment. Major life activities include walking, eating, sleeping, learning, thinking, communicating and working, among others. The definition of disability was amended in 2008 to ensure broad coverage, and most medical conditions now qualify as an ADA-covered disability.
  2. Qualified individual with a disability: A “qualified individual” is one who satisfies the skill, experience and any other job-related requirements of the position, whether as an applicant or an ongoing employee. So if someone is not qualified for a job (not the right educational level, for instance), then he is not a “qualified individual with a disability.” Although he may have a disability under the ADA, he is not qualified for the job — but for a reason that has nothing to do with his disability.
  3. Reasonable accommodation: A “reasonable accommodation” is a modification to a job or the work environment that allows a qualified individual with a disability to perform the “essential functions” of the job. Not all disabilities require an accommodation, but if one does, then the employer must consider the request and enter into an interactive discussion with the employee or applicant to determine if the request can be reasonably accommodated. An accommodation is not reasonable if it imposes an “undue hardship” on the company.
  4. Essential functions: A job function is essential if it is a “fundamental job duty” of the position — marginal functions are not “essential.” An essential function is a function that is the reason the position exists, that can only be performed by a limited number of employees, or that is “highly specialized” such that the employee is hired for his expertise in performing the function. Written job descriptions can constitute evidence of the essential functions of a job, but the actual duties that the employee or applicant is performing or will perform trump the written description.
  5. Undue hardship : This is a very fact-specific analysis, defined as an action that requires significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to the nature and size of the company, its resources, and the nature and structure of its operations. You must consult your in-house experts and attorneys when deciding to turn down an accommodation because of an undue hardship. This is a heavily litigated and dangerous area of the ADA for employers.

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