The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. §12101, et seq.) was enacted to prevent discrimination against disabled persons in the workplace. Its stated purpose is in part to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It provides that any medical condition that interfered with a major life activity, should be accommodated in some reasonable fashion by the employer, such that they would be able to perform the essential functions of the job. Subsequent case law interpreting this law tended to interpret the applicable scope of the law very narrowly, most notably in the Supreme Court case of Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 US 471 (1999). In Sutton, the Court restricted the scope of coverage of the ADA, by very narrowly defining what could be considered a disability. Fortunately, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which restored the broader scope of what was to be covered by the Act, including a non-exhaustive list of medical conditions that would be considered disabilities, such as mental health disorders and systemic impairments.
Once the employee establishes that they have a disability, they can request a reasonable accommodation from the employer that will allow the employee to perform all the essential functions of the job. When a covered employer is put on notice of the fact that an employee has a disability, that employer is then required to engage in what is referred to as the interactive process. This is the process wherein the employer discusses the needs of the employee to be accommodated, in order for the employee to perform the essential job functions. The essential functions are generally defined by the employer. The needed accommodations are subject to discussion and challenge on the issue of reasonableness. The employer does not have to give an employee the exact accommodation they have requested. However, if they are not going to provide that accommodation, some explanation is required and/or some possible alternative provided. This is where the concept of reasonableness takes center stage in the negotiations with an employer. There are no bright line rules for determining what is reasonable and what is not. Factors that make up that determination include the nature of the work, costs, disruptions to workplace and workflow, the size of the employer, privacy issues, safety concerns, precedent, and other practical aspects.
One thing every person should understand if they have a disability and it is affecting their work, is that the protections under the statute are not triggered until the employer knows or has reason to know of the condition. People often feel uncomfortable disclosing their condition and the need for accommodation, and therefore do not disclose the situation until they are already facing termination or other adverse employment action. Depending on the culture of the company, it can be a legitimate concern, but being proactive and asserting your rights under the ADA can make all the difference in a case.
Legal advice is important in the early stages to ensure a proper request is made and to properly address the employer's response.