Jul 01 2004
Since its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided innumerable opportunities for individuals with disabilities to be treated equally and fairly. However, the ADA is a very large and complex law that is still being defined by litigation, as court decisions try to interpret its broad language. As with most providers of public services, the ADA can greatly impact your library’s facilities, services, funding and staff. Following, find a brief description of the requirements employers face under Title I of the ADA.
A Brief History
The movement to prevent discrimination against individuals on the basis of a disability began during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and national origin, but did not include disability. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 granted some protection, but not in the areas of employment or public accommodations in the private sector. Finally, in 1990, the ADA was passed. Otherwise qualified disabled individuals were granted protection from discrimination in employment. Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with a disability in regards to all areas of employment, including the application process. Title I focuses on whether an individual with a disability can perform the essential functions of a position, either with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Before you can begin making accommodations for employees and applicants in accordance with the ADA, you should understand the terminology of the Act. The ADA defines “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The Act does not contain a list of major life activities, but guidelines and litigation have begun to define them as the ability to stand, sit, walk, lift, reach, talk, eat, breath, hear, see, learn, or reproduce. More recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines have added additional major life activities such as thinking and interacting with others to the list. It is important to note the ADA does not protect individuals who violate employer drug and alcohol policies; the Act does cover addicts in recovery.
The ADA extends the definition of disability to include individuals who are regarded as disabled, even if they are not limited in a major life activity. In simpler terms, if you assume an individual has a disability or treat them as if they do, then they are viewed as disabled by the ADA. Also included as disabled under the Act are individuals who have a record of a disability, even if they are not currently limited in a major life activity. As cases continue to find their way into court, the list of major life activities will increase and the definition of disabled will continue to be debated.
Qualified individuals with a disability can request a “reasonable accommodation” from employers to help them perform the essential functions of a job. A reasonable accommodation is any modification to a job, work site/environment, or job procedure that enables a qualified, but disabled, individual perform the essential function of a position. The ADA does not force employers to provide specific remedies to an ADA request, only that an accommodation that does not create an “undue hardship” for an employer. An undue hardship would be a significant financial expense. The ADA also does not require an employer to make an accommodation that would create a direct threat to the safety of the disabled individual or others in the workplace. There are no uniform accommodations for a disability, and all requests should be viewed individually.
How to Respond to an ADA Request
Employees, or applicants, do not have to use any specific language or process to request an accommodation. A simple request for a tool, a schedule change, or time off can signal a request for an ADA accommodation. When you receive a request for any type of job modification, you should begin to follow your procedure for accommodating a disability and immediately contact your Human Resources (HR) department. If you do not have an HR department, you can seek assistance from the EEOC. The EEOC provides guidelines for employers and employees on their web site (see below) that are easy to read and use.
Once notified of a request for accommodation, the ADA requires you to engage in an interactive process with the disabled individual to determine the nature of the disability and the most effective resolution to the request. Through this interactive process, the employer needs to determine if the individual is disabled and if the accommodation is reasonable. The interactive process can include requesting a medical statement proving the disability and the limitations caused by the individual’s disability.
Once you have begun the interactive process, you can then decide what accommodation(s) you will make. If the individual is not disabled, you can then decide to grant, or not, the request. If the employee does have a disability, you must provide an accommodation, if reasonable.
How to Avoid ADA Complaints
The best way to avoid ADA complaints and potential litigation is to be prepared for ADA requests by knowing your policy. If you do not have one, or do not know if you do, contact your HR department or consult the EEOC site. Once you know your policy, you can create a procedure for your library to handle each accommodation request. The key is to know how to open the interactive dialogue with the individual making the request and how to work the employee to determine the reasonable accommodation.
Another way to be prepared is to be familiar with your job descriptions. Every position (not every individual) in your library should have a detailed job description that includes a summary, essential functions, work environment, skill requirements and physical requirements. Having a documented job description will allow you and your employees to understand what is expected in the position and what is considered an essential function of the job. Job descriptions should also be given to applicants. You cannot ask an applicant if they have a disability, but you can ask them if they have read and understand the job description.
The Americans with Disabilities Act creates new opportunities for employees and employers alike. However, there are a large number of employers that have faced litigation due to ignorance of the ADA. Whenever you have a request for changes to a position or work environment, do not ignore it or assume it will go away. Immediately involve your HR or legal support and begin an interactive dialogue with the individual. By addressing issues immediately and consistently, you can protect your employees, your workplace, and your library patrons.
Web Sites for Additional Information:
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
U.S. Department of Justice ADA Home Page
The Job Accommodation Network, a free consulting service designed to increase the employability of people with disabilities
Meghan L. Prater spent seven years in Human Resources before becoming a part-time graduate student. She is currently enrolled at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado and hopes to obtain her MLIS in 2006. When not at school, Meghan works full time for a regional employer’s council providing Human Resource related information and research.