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Employer Obligations for Disability Accommodation

Dealing with a disability in the workplace can be tough, particularly when it begins to affect your ability to perform the functions of your position. Thankfully, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a remedy for qualifying employees in an effort to make employment opportunities equally accessible to everyone.

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal statute codified at 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., which is designed to protect Americans with disabilities from being discriminated against on the basis of that disability. Discrimination means you have been treated unfavorably in some way on the basis of your disability. Employer discrimination on the basis of disability can take many forms, including, but not limited to:

  • Negative differential treatment in job application procedures
  • Hiring
  • Advancement
  • Discharge
  • Employee compensation
  • Job training
  • Other various terms, privileges and conditions of employment

Do I Have a Disability That Qualifies Me for ADA Protection?

You are considered to have a qualifying disability under the ADA if you (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) have a record of such impairment; or (3) are otherwise regarded as having such an impairment. For purposes of ADA protection, major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. Major life activities can also include limitations on the operation of major bodily functions, such as immune system function, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

Additionally, you are generally regarded as having such an impairment under the ADA if you establish that you have been subjected to discrimination because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment, whether or not such impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity. You are not regarded as having an impairment if it is transitory and minor (i.e., your impairment has an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less). For example, an employee who permanently loses full or partial use of an arm would qualify as having a disability, but an employee who breaks his or her arm and is in a sling or cast for several weeks would not qualify. In short, if you have a disability that substantially limits your ability to live a normal life or perform any of the above-listed activities, you may qualify for protection under the ADA.

How Do I Know if the ADA Applies to My Employer?

The ADA applies to employers who are engaged in an industry affecting commerce and who have 15 or more employees for each working day in each of 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. The ADA does not apply to employers such as the United States, corporations wholly owned by the U.S. government, Indian tribes or bona fide private membership clubs (other than labor organizations) that are exempt from taxation under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. Therefore, if you work for a private, for-profit employer with at least 15 employees, the ADA likely applies to your employer.

Is My Employer Required to Accommodate My Disability?

Employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations to physical or mental limitations resulting from disabilities of qualified individuals with disabilities that are known to their employers. Thus, an employer would not be expected to accommodate disabilities of which it is unaware. Additionally, the employee must need the accommodation because of his or her disability, not for some other reason.

In the context of disability discrimination, an accommodation is reasonable if it allows the employee to fulfill the essential functions of his or her job without imposing an undue hardship on the employer. It is the burden of the employee to identify what reasonable accommodations would have allowed him or her to perform the essential functions of his or her employment, but it is the burden of the employer to show that the accommodation would pose an undue hardship. An accommodation constitutes an undue hardship if it would impose more than a de minimis cost to an employer (i.e., it imposes more than minimal economic or non-economic costs or would require the employer to eliminate an essential duty of the position in question). In other words, if your requested accommodation will require your employer to devote substantial time and resources to effecting it, it may pose an undue hardship. On the other hand, if your requested accommodation could be implemented easily, it likely does not pose an undue hardship.

What Accommodations Can I Receive From My Employer?

Examples of accommodations that are generally considered reasonable include:

  • Job restructuring or changing job tasks
  • Providing reserved parking spaces
  • Improving accessibility to work areas
  • Modifying or changing tests and training materials
  • Modifying or adjusting a product, equipment or software
  • Providing assistive technology or devices
  • Allowing flexible work schedules and/or work locations
  • Providing an aid or service to increase access
  • Reassignment to a similar vacant position

If any of these accommodations sound like they would accommodate your disability, and you and your employer are qualified under the ADA, you may request that your employer grant you said accommodation. On the other hand, accommodations that would require your employer to devote significant time and resources toward extensive training, hiring additional personnel, or fundamentally altering your job responsibilities likely would not be considered reasonable.

How Do I Start the Process of Receiving an Accommodation?

First, it is important to make your employer aware of your disability and how it is impacting your work. Maintaining an open dialogue with your employer is important, as most employers will be more likely to quickly grant your request for an accommodation. It may be necessary to obtain preliminary documentation to present to your employer, such as a doctor’s note demonstrating evidence of your disability diagnosis.

As the employee, you know which accommodations will be most effective for you. However, it is ultimately the employer’s decision as to which accommodations to implement. Therefore, it is important to maintain civility in the process of suggesting accommodations to your employer. Your employer may very well implement your preferred accommodation straight away. On the other hand, if your employer denies your request for an accommodation, you should be provided with a reason for denying the request.

Throughout the process of communicating with your employer, it is important to take care to document all pertinent information, such as key dates, actions taken, and any adjustments made. You should make an effort to save all relevant emails, text messages, or other correspondence sent by you or received from your employer in regard to your request for a reasonable accommodation. If you request an accommodation that is reasonable, and your employer denies your request without providing sufficient justification, you may be entitled to bring a federal claim against them for violation of the ADA.

Ready to Start a Conversation?

If you have additional questions about the ADA or about employment laws in Tennessee that apply to your specific situation, please do not hesitate to reach out to our team of employment law attorneys at Cole Law Group. We have successfully litigated numerous employment law cases and are prepared to assist you with any legal issues you may have with your employer or employees. Just call our office at (615) 490-6020 or contact us via a message on our website to arrange a consultation.

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