A How-To Guide to Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Reasonable Accommodation

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Understanding the legislation around disabilities in the workplace can feel very overwhelming. Where do you begin? Gaining basic knowledge about the Americans with Disabilities Act and reasonable accommodation will help you create a manageable action plan for your company.

What is reasonable accommodation? It’s a modification or adjustment to the work environment to make the workplace equal opportunity for everyone there, essentially creating an equal playing field for people with disabilities. This means the disabled employee should be able to receive the same benefits and quality of work as someone who does not have a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act coined reasonable accommodation in 1990 when legislation was passed, but it didn’t go into affect until 1992. The Americans with Disabilities impacted employment, government and public places, but for this post we will focus on Title 1, which solely discusses employment. After 1992 employers with 15 or more employees could no longer deny employment for a qualified person with disabilities based on their disabilities alone. What does “disabled” mean to the Americans with Disabilities Act? It breaks down into three categories: a person who has physical or mental impairment that limits major life activities, a person with a record of physical or mental impairment that limits major life activities or a person who is regarded as having physical or mental impairment that limits major life activities. Of course, the disabled employee must be deemed as “competitively employable” meaning they have the ability to complete job tasks, but may need the additional assistance due to their disability.

This all sounds a little ambiguous, doesn’t it? Let’s break it down- if your company has 15 or more employees you need to provide basic accommodations for people with disabilities. Reasonable accommodation according to the Americans with Disabilities Act has three parts: equal opportunity for all in the job application process, workplace modifications so an employee can perform job duties and equal benefits and employment opportunities for all employees. So as an employer you need to take the steps to make your application possible for people with disabilities, make on-the-job modifications as necessary and provide equal benefits/employment opportunities. Examples of reasonable accommodations include: sign language interpreter, extra breaks, modified training, etc. but does not include personal items such as glasses or hearing aid.

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not make the employer hire someone not capable of the job. It’s called “undue hardship,” meaning the employer does not have to go through an extraordinary expense to make the job manageable for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities also covers confidentiality, meaning employers cannot ask about a person’s disability, but they can ask how the applicant will perform job duties.

It’s very important to know about this legislation as an employer so you can make informed decisions and the necessary to changes to your work environment. Hiring people with disabilities can affect your company in ways you never imagined: new perspectives, increased morale and even tax credits! You can read a previous post for more info on the tax breaks for hiring people with disabilities here. Being knowledgeable about the Americans with Disabilities Act will only help you become a better advocate for people with disabilities in your workplace and beyond!

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