In hopes of leveling the playing field for individuals with disabilities seeking employment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees with respect to terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. While the objective of this Act is admirable, employers are often apprehensive about interviewing and employing individuals who suffer from a “disability” (meaning a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities). This apprehension may stem from a lack of understanding the ADA’s requirements, and fear that a misstep will result in a lawsuit.
In reality, the ADA leaves employers broad latitude in hiring and employment practices, as they are only required to provide reasonable accommodations to enable an otherwise qualified disabled applicant or employee to perform the job. Further, although an employer is prohibited from asking an applicant about the nature or severity of the applicant’s disability, the employer may ask her whether she can perform the duties with or without reasonable accommodations.
“Reasonable accommodations” include providing or modifying equipment or devices; job restructuring; modified work schedules; providing readers and interpreters; and making the workplace accessible. However, if the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” on the employer, the employer does not have to provide the accommodation. Essentially, if the employer can prove that an accommodation will cause significant difficulty or expense, the accommodation is not reasonable and the employer is within its rights to decline to offer the accommodation.
Providing further protection to employers is the fact that courts will not second guess businesses’ assessment of economic conditions, the individuals’ work performance, and staffing needs. Willnerd v. First Nat. Nebraska, Inc., 558 F.3d 770, 779 (8th Cir. 2009) (“In general, it is not the court’s role to second-guess businesses’ assessments of general economic conditions, their own performance, and their own staffing needs.”). As long as employment decisions are motivated by reasonable financial or business concerns, and not discrimination, the employer should not have to worry about adverse legal action as a result of decisions involving individuals with disability. Any employer worried that an employment decision may result in a discrimination action should consult legal counsel before acting.
Instead of being apprehensive about interviewing and hiring individuals with disabilities, due to fear of discrimination allegations, employers can leverage the unique talents applicants may offer, all while knowing the ADA will protect them from liability for well-founded business decisions.