Accommodating the disabled under the ADA

Making Reasonable Work Adjustments for Handicapped Employees is Generally Quick, Easy and Inexpensive, and is Always Required by Law

By Jack Merrill

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it promised new hope for disabled people who wanted to work but felt that the biases of an ill-informed public denied them the opportunity. Some people now suggest that the Act has not lived up to that promise. Many disabled workers still have trouble getting jobs, and some experts think that the Act has increased the cost of hiring them.

That thinking is unfortunate. The fact is that ADA-required accommodations are usually easy and inexpensive. To the extent that businesses shy away from hiring the disabled because they fear the expense, they may be turning away highly qualified people who can, with only modest work adjustments or even no adjustments at all, become outstanding employees. What’s more, they may be breaking the law.

The truth is that the ADA does not require employers to expend exorbitant sums or to help employees who cannot perform the essentials of a particular job. It does, however, mandate reasonable, relatively inexpensive measures to enable otherwise incapable workers to perform alongside non-disabled employees. This might mean something as simple as changing seating arrangements, providing a larger computer screen, or ordering a chair with back support. It might also mean something a bit more burdensome — granting a short-term leave of absence, for example — but only if the leave will not cause undue hardship to the business.

Accommodations like these are required only for qualified disabled persons. The ADA defines disability as any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The definition is easy to apply when the disability is something as visible and indisputable as quadriplegia. (But see recent U.S. Supreme Court case law, which challenges traditional notions of disability and raises questions about the applicability of the ADA to visible impairments). It’s far tougher when the diagnosis is depression or some other mental impairment. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and its federal law counterpart (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have produced regulations to help explain when psychiatric conditions are disabilities, but uncertainty persists.

Employers need to be alert to disability issues on the job. When a worker’s disability is known, employers should carefully consider necessary accommodations, if any. When in doubt, they should consult counsel. Employees, on the other hand, need to bring their disabilities and required accommodations to their employers’ attention so that proper adjustments can be made. This is particularly true when a worker’s job performance is suffering due to a hidden disability and performance can be improved by an inexpensive accommodation.