What the ADA Means (and Doesn’t Mean) for Employee Accommodations

By: Sarah Roberts

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The Securities and Exchange Commission recently disappointed accessibility advocates by approving the NASDAQ’s proposed diversity reporting rule, which excludes disability as a category. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the US, and many see the decision as a missed opportunity to promote a more inclusive corporate culture. Despite this setback, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) still works to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities. The Act’s employee protections can cause businesses to face severe legal consequences. Rather than fearing the ADA, corporate leaders should take time to understand what it does and doesn’t ask of them and take positive steps toward creating a more inclusive workplace, like by promoting effective communication. 

Understanding Reasonable Accommodations and Undue Hardships

Title I of the ADA requires that employers refrain from discriminating against and offer accommodations for disabled employees or potential employees. Although employers often worry that this policy will be expensive, more than half of workplace accommodations are free and when they are not, the average cost is about $500. Still, the law includes two protections for companies.

First, only businesses with 15 or more employees are subject to the ADA. Very small companies can avoid the potential costs of adhering to this law- although state regulations may create obligations for businesses with fewer employees.

A group of people working on their computers in the office. Effective communication in modern workplaces may mean electronic as well as direct communication.

Second, the ADA only requires reasonable accommodations and will not force an employer to offer them where the cost creates an undue hardship. Installing an elevator, for example, could be prohibitively expensive for many companies. However, if the employer can feasibly solve that problem by moving an employee to a first-floor office or allowing them to perform their job remotely, those lower-cost alternatives would likely be considered reasonable.

Navigating Disabled Employees and Prospective Employees

Employers sometimes mistakenly believe that the ADA forces them to hire less qualified candidates because they are disabled. Instead, the employer cannot refuse a job to a person based on their disability. For instance, if a person with disabilities lacks the qualifications listed for a job, the employer can refuse to hire them because they are not the right fit for the role. However, if the individual has excellent qualifications, and the employer chooses not to hire that person as soon as they learn about their disability, then the business might find itself in violation of the law.

There is also no need to keep individuals in a role where they are not performing well just because they have a disability. However, if the employer fires the person after refusing to make a reasonable accommodation, the employee may have a strong argument that the business discriminated against them.

ADA Lawsuits: The Consequences of Failing to Comply

Another misconception about the ADA is that it often leads to frivolous lawsuits. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles the enforcement of ADA employment cases and reviews each complaint. The EEOC is a form of gatekeeper and frequently assists in resolving claims out of court.

Sometimes the EEOC or an employee will file a lawsuit. One recent example occurred when Walmart ended the application process for an individual after he requested a sign language interpreter for his interview. The EEOC chose to pursue the claim, stating that the company failed to make a reasonable accommodation. The District Director of the involved EEOC office pointed out that Walmart could have arranged a different solution and that real-time captioning, an interpreter, instant messaging systems and other options could have provided the necessary assistance.

This case is not Walmart’s first battle with the EEOC for failing to accommodate employees who are Deaf. The company settled a similar case for $100,000 in 2019 after failing to offer closed captioning on training videos and other related services. With services like Verbit offering easily accessible captioning and audio description options, the EEOC is likely to view these accommodations as reasonable meaning failing to offer them may lead to defending against similar lawsuits. However, it’s important to understand that the law doesn’t necessarily call for a specific tool like captions. Instead, the rule is that businesses must use effective communication methods with employees and prospective employees.

Focusing on effective communication  

While ADA lawsuits may sound frightening, avoiding them comes down to having strong workplace communication channels. Developing the right approach for an employee with disabilities is an individualized process. While the ADA requires accommodations, it is often up to the employer and employee to collaboratively determine what accessibility tools, technology or solutions to implement. The key to this is effective communication, which is what the ADA actually requires rather than specific aids. Effective communication in the workplace and proactively offering common accommodations will help make everyone feel included. 

It is also good to remember that modern innovations make it easier for companies to offer technological solutions to their employees with disabilities. For instance, offering captioning for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing or audio descriptions for employees who are blind is simpler than ever with the assistance of AI-powered tools. The easier it is to provide a service, the more difficult it will be to claim that the accommodation is an undue hardship.  

Verbit supplies accessibility solutions to corporations, universities and others around the world. To learn more about our captioning, transcription, audio description, subtitling services and more, reach out to us today