Navigating ADA Employment Basics

Submitted by Maggie Sims on Wed, 06/16/2021
Smooth Sailing Ahead!

After 30+ years of the ADA, the ADA Center still receives basic (but vital) inquiries about a person’s rights. As we know, the disability community is the largest minority group, and one that anyone can (and probably will) join at some point in their lifetime. This means there will always be a new group of individuals who need information on the ADA. And many times, how the ADA applies in the workplace is usually the first place to start learning.

When the ADA was passed in 1990, one of the chief goals was to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Title I of the ADA focuses on employment rights and responsibilities in all areas of employment. There are a variety of resources that help understand the different tiers that are involved in the workplace. This blog will provide some fundamentals to help understand the who, what, when, where, and how to navigate the ADA for employers, job seekers, and employees.  Plotting the course of ADA basics and being prepared in advance will keep everyone in calm waters!

What is a disability?

Different laws have different definitions for disability. Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities: such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, or breathing.  It also includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. Additionally, individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability are protected. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability. Disabilities include obvious impairments, such as using a wheelchair; and less obvious things, such as back injuries or dyslexia. It must be substantially limiting and not just a minor inconvenience. For example, a sprained ankle or broken arm is usually not a disability; however, if such an injury is a prolonged injury, it’s possible that it would still be covered under the ADA.

What are basics of the ADA at work?

The ADA requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities that will enable those employees to perform essential job functions. The ADA requires reasonable accommodation in three aspects of employment: 1) to ensure equal opportunity in the application process, 2) to enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job, and 3) to enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.   

What are essential job functions?

Essential job functions are the fundamental duties of the position; the tasks that a person in the job absolutely must be able to do, with or without an accommodation. 

What is a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is a change to a job or work environment that enables an employee with a disability to perform the essential job functions. Reasonable accommodations cover a wide range of options for an employee’s disability. They can include:

  • Making existing facilities readily accessible to employees with disabilities.
  • Modifying work schedules (including using leave)
  • Reassignment to a vacant position

How do I request a reasonable accommodation?

There is not an official way to request accommodation.  You can make your initial request face-to-face, by email or a formal letter to your employer.  An employer may have a process in place to request an accommodation, so after your initial request the employer may ask you to fill out a form.    

As an employer, how do I know if someone needs an accommodation?

An employee can use “plain English” – they don’t have to use ADA terminology.  So, any time an employee indicates there is a medical problem that is inhibiting their ability to work, the employer should consider if this is a request for reasonable accommodation.

What are the next steps after an accommodation request?

The employee and the employer should engage in an interactive process to discuss and clarify what the individual needs and explore available options.  

Is medical documentation required?

An employer is not required by the ADA to collect documentation. But if a disability is not evident, the employer has the right to request medical evidence that a disability exists and that there is the need for accommodation.

How long does an employer have to provide an accommodation after it is requested?

The ADA does not specify a certain amount of time, but the EEOC has indicated that it should be done as “expeditiously as possible.” Unnecessary delays can result in a violation of the ADA.   

Does anyone with a disability have to disclose? 

Disclosure is only necessary if the employee needs an accommodation. This applies to all phases of employment, including the application and interview process as well as on the job.    

If I have questions about my rights and/or responsibilities, where can I go?

The Rocky Mountain ADA Center is here to help!


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The Rocky Mountain ADA Center's blog, Access Granted, tackles ADA issues through unique and diverse perspectives. Articles are written by staff of RMADAC and a variety of special guest authors. Some may be educational, others might be personal or thought-provoking. Either way, Access Granted will bring you the ADA of today!

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