December 7, 2021

Volume XI, Number 341

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December 06, 2021

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Disability in the Workplace: The key to equal access and accommodations

The month of October is designated as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) to educate the public about the issues faced by people with disabilities in pursuing, obtaining, and keeping employment. 

There are approximately 5.5 million employees in the United States who have some type of disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and these employees account for at least 4% of the employed population. It is likely that almost all large employers have had disabled employees at some point in time. This has not always been the case, however. Until the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, disabled persons in the United States were often denied employment opportunities. And even today, despite the passage of the ADA, there are millions of individuals with disabilities who cannot find meaningful employment despite their capabilities and skills. 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first legislation to address the idea of equal access for individuals with disabilities through the removal of architectural, employment, and transportation barriers. But the Rehabilitation Act only reached those businesses and employers who received federal funding — the vast majority of businesses were not impacted by it. But the advances created by the Rehabilitation Act marked the first time that the exclusion and segregation of persons with disabilities was recognized as unlawful discrimination. The Rehabilitation Act recognized that although there are major physical and mental variations in different disabilities, people with disabilities as a group faced similar discrimination in employment, education, and social access. 

Thus spurred on by the advances achieved through the Rehabilitation Act, the disability rights community was determined to expand these rights to the larger general population. Their efforts culminated in the signing of the ADA in 1990, which is a watershed event in U.S. history. The ADA is premised on a basic presumption that people with disabilities want to and are capable of working, want to be members of the community, and that the exclusion and segregation of people with disabilities would no longer be tolerated in our society. 

Although the ADA reaches many parts of our lives, it has brought profound changes to the workplace. No longer is it legal for employers to refuse to hire applicants with disabilities, terminate employees who becomes disabled, or otherwise treat disabled employees differently than other employees in the terms and conditions of employment. And not only must employers treat disabled employees equally, the ADA requires them to affirmatively accommodate their disabilities in order that the disabled workers can participate equally with other employees in the workplace. 

The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA defines a physical impairment as a physiological disorder that affects a body system and a mental impairment as a psychological or mental disorder, such as emotional or mental illness, developmental disorders, and learning disabilities. An impairment that is episodic or in remission, such as cancer or HIV, is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. Major life activities include almost everything we do, such as seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

Employers are required under the ADA not only to not discriminate against disabled employees but to also provide reasonable accommodations to them so they can perform the essential functions of their jobs. A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job or to the work environment that enables an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job, but to successfully perform their job tasks to the same extent as people without disabilities. Reasonable accommodations should not be viewed as “special treatment,” and they often benefit all employees. Examples of reasonable accommodations include making existing facilities accessible, job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules, acquiring or modifying equipment, changing training materials or policies, and providing qualified readers or interpreters. Many job accommodations cost very little and often involve minor changes to a work environment, schedule, or work-related technologies.

Employers should always engage a disabled employee in a discussion to find a mutually acceptable reasonable accommodation that will permit the employee to perform their job but not create an undue hardship on the employer. Although employers do not necessarily have to provide the accommodation requested by the employee, they should take into account the employee’s wishes and attempt to accommodate unless such an accommodation would create an undue hardship. There are as many accommodations as there are individuals with disabilities, and the employer’s responsibility is to make sure they have looked at all reasonable accommodations before deciding that providing an accommodation would be an undue hardship to the employer. The undue hardship standard is very high and should be used very sparingly and only when all other accommodation efforts have been exhausted.

In conclusion, the passage of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA have provided great benefits to our society and have given opportunities to millions of individuals who in the past would have been unfairly and discriminatorily excluded from the workforce.

Copyright ©2021 Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLPNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 300
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About this Author

Debbie Whittle Durban Employment Attorney Nelson Mullins South Carolina
Partner

Debbie practices in the areas of labor and employment law, ERISA, ADA compliance, trade secrets, and business litigation.

803-255-9465
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