Accommodations for Heart Disease

A reader asks about ADA protections for coronary heart disease.


I have coronary heart disease, and my doctor has told me to avoid certain physical activities to avoid putting more stress on my system. I work as an administrative assistant at a real estate agency. Most of my job involves scheduling, completing paperwork, and keeping client files up to date; I do most of it sitting at my desk. Occasionally, however, I'm asked to do something more physical, like replacing large water bottles or carrying boxes of files or paper. Rarely, I have to help with a last minute staging job, which might include moving furniture and accessories. These physical tasks are painful, but they are part of my job. Can I ask my employer to allow me not to do them?


If your employer is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation for your condition -- including a change in your job duties to allow you to avoid heavy lifting.

First off, private employers are subject to the ADA if they have at least 15 employees. Employees are protected by the ADA if they have a disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or major bodily functions. The ADA doesn't list the conditions that always will or never will qualify as a disability. Instead, it instructs employers and courts to look at how the employee's condition affects his or her functioning. As long as your coronary heart disease substantially limits your major life activities, you are protected. Because coronary heart disease limits the proper functioning of the circulatory system, you are likely to be found to have a disability.

Assuming you have a disability, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations: changes to your job or workplace that will allow you to perform the essential functions of your job. In your case, it sounds like you don't need an accommodation to do the essential functions of your job. The job duties that are difficult for you are occasional and tangential to your primary purpose: to provide administrative assistance to agents. In this situation, the typical reasonable accommodation is simply to remove those duties from your job description. For example, the office manager could task someone else with any assignments that require heavy lifting. And, you could be relieved from emergency pinch-hitting to stage homes for sale.

Even if these duties were an integral part of your job, accommodations might be available. For example, some employees need special lifting equipment, a cart to transport heavy objects, or a lifting restriction for items that weigh more than twenty pounds. In your situation, however, lifting things isn't the purpose of your job, nor is it an essential part of helping service clients. Therefore, these changes should be relatively easy to make.

To start the conversation with your employer, write a reasonable accommodation letter explaining your condition, your restrictions, and the changes you need at work. Give it to your office manager and your HR department. After receiving your letter, your employer should begin a discussion with you about possible changes to your job that will effectively accommodate your condition. For help getting started, as well as tips on what to include in your letter, see our article Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation. For tips and strategies on getting an accommodation, including hundreds of accommodation ideas for a variety of disabling conditions, check out the website of the Job Accommodation Network.

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