The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), in a nutshell, prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Yet, this simple, well-intended proposition seems to create a countless number of disputes between employees and employers. Let’s try to demystify some of these issues.
For the purposes of the ADA, “discrimination” means not making “reasonable accommodations” to the physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability. A reasonable accommodation can generally be any change in the work environment, or in the way things are customarily done, which enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal opportunities. 29 C.F.R. pt. 1630 app. § 1630.2(o). By way of example, providing a reasonable accommodation can mean:
- Making an employer’s existing facilities readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities;
- Job restructuring;
- Part-time or modified work schedules;
- Reassignment to a vacant position;
- Purchasing or modifying equipment or devices; or
- Appropriate adjustments to training materials or employment policies.
The spectrum of available accommodations is wide-ranging. It is generally only limited to the extent the employer can demonstrate that the requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.
Ultimately, however, an employee is not entitled to an accommodation of his or her own choosing. Rather, an employee is only entitled to an accommodation which the ADA deems reasonable. This principle was demonstrated in the recent case of Bunn v. Khoury Enterprises, Inc., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 9872 (May 28, 2014, 7th Cir.).
Joshua Bunn, who is legally blind, sought an accommodation from his employer to allow him to perform his essential job functions. In response, the employer reassigned Mr. Bunn to a position which he could perform despite his impaired vision. The accommodation worked. However, it was not the accommodation that Mr. Bunn wanted. So he resigned and sued, claiming a failure to accommodate under the ADA.
The Court disagreed. To the contrary, the Court found that the job restructuring allowed Mr. Bunn to perform the essential functions of his job, even if the accommodation was not his preference:
In short, it was exactly the kind of accommodation envisioned by the regulations applicable to the ADA . . . the undisputed facts show that Khoury did what it was required to do by law . . . In this area of the law, we are primarily concerned with the ends, not the means . . . Bunn’s apparent displeasure with the way in which Khoury decided on that accommodation, or with its failure to provide the exact accommodation he would have preferred, is irrelevant.
- For employees, know that you are entitled to reasonable accommodations for qualified disabilities. If you feel that the accommodation provided by your employer is not reasonable, carefully document your attempts to resolve the issue.
- For employers, the ADA ultimately only requires that you act reasonably. Avoid “failure to accommodate” claims by engaging in an interactive process and dialogue with your employees when they request an accommodation for a legitimate, qualifying disability. However, know that you are not obligated to succumb to unreasonable requests or those which would place undue hardship upon your business.