Reasonable Accommodations for People With Disabilities: The ADA

Employers may not discriminate against applicants and employees with disabilities.

By , Attorney University of North Carolina School of Law
Updated 7/03/2023

People with disabilities make valuable contributions at workif they are given the opportunity to do so. In the past two decades, the federal government and many state governments have passed laws that give people with disabilities this opportunity.

The main federal law is called the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and it and similar state laws have changed the face of the American workforce by prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities and by requiring employers to accommodate the disabilities of employeesand applicantswhen possible.

Who Is Covered by the ADA?

The ADA and most state laws protect "qualified workers with disabilities." Thus, someone must be a qualified worker and must have a legally recognized disability to be protected by the ADA. Let's look more closely at these issues.

A qualified worker is a worker who can perform most basic and necessary job duties, with or without some form of accommodation.

What Is a Disability Under the ADA?

The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.

For an impairment to be a legal disability, it must be long term. Temporary impairments, such as pregnancy or broken bones, are not covered by the ADA (but may be covered by other laws.)

Physical or Mental Impairment

An individual is disabled under the ADA if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as the ability to walk, talk, see, hear, breathe, reason, work, or take care of oneself).

Major bodily functions, such as cell growth and the proper functioning of the immune, brain, and respiratory systems, also count as major life activities. Episodic impairments (such as asthma) and diseases that are in remission (as might be true of cancer) are also included if they limit a major life activity when active, even if the employee is not currently suffering such a limitation.

Record of Such an Impairment

A worker is also disabled if they have a record or history of an impairment. That means an employer may not make employment decisions based on your employee's past disability.

Regarded as Having Such an Impairment

An employee is protected by the ADA if their employer regards themeven incorrectlyas having a disability. In other words, an employer can't treat a worker less favorably because they believe the worker to be disabled, even if the employer is wrong.

Making Reasonable Accommodations for Workers With Disabilities

Accommodating a worker means providing assistance or making changes in the job or workplace that will enable the worker to do the job. For example, an employer might lower the height of a desktop to accommodate a worker in a wheelchair; provide TDD telephone equipment for a worker whose hearing is impaired; or provide a quiet, distraction-free workspace for a worker with attention deficit disorder.

Negotiating an Accommodation

It is your employee's responsibility to inform you of the disability and request a reasonable accommodation -- you are not legally required to guess at what might help the employee do his or her job.

However, once an employee informs you of his or her disability, you must engage in what the law calls a "flexible interactive process" -- essentially, a brainstorming dialogue with your worker to figure out what kinds of accommodations might be effective and practical.

You do not have to give your worker the precise accommodation he or she requests, but you must work together to come up with a reasonable solution.

Undue Hardship Exception

You don't have to provide an accommodation if it would cause your business "undue hardship." For instance, if the cost of an accommodation would eat up an entire year's profits (building a new wing on your office building, for example), you don't have to do it. Whether an accommodation qualifies as undue hardship depends on a number of factors, including:

  • the cost of the accommodation
  • the size and financial resources of your business
  • the structure of your business, and
  • the effect the accommodation would have on your business.

You and the employee may have different opinions about what constitutes a reasonable accommodation and what would be an undue hardship. If you're unsure whether you must provide a disabled employee with a specific accommodation, you might want to get some legal help.

Alcohol and Drugs

Alcohol and drug use pose special problems under the ADA. Employees who use (or have used) alcohol or drugs may have a disability under the law. However, an employer can require these employees to meet the same work standards -- including not drinking or using drugs on the job -- as employees who do not have a disability. Here are some guidelines to follow when dealing with these tricky issues:

  • Alcoholism. Alcoholism is a disability covered by the ADA. This means that an employer cannot fire or discipline a worker simply for being an alcoholic. However, an employer can fire or discipline an alcoholic worker for failing to meet work-related performance and behavior standards imposed on all employees -- even if the worker fails to meet these standards because of alcohol abuse.
  • Illegal drug use. The ADA does not protect employees who currently use or are addicted to illegal drugs. These workers do not have a disability within the meaning of the law and therefore don't have the right to be free from discrimination or to receive a reasonable accommodation. However, the ADA does cover workers who are no longer using drugs and have successfully completed (or are currently participating in) a supervised drug rehabilitation program.
  • Use of legal drugs. If an employee is taking prescription medication or over-the-counter drugs to treat a disability, you may have to accommodate that employee's use of drugs and the side effects that the drugs have on the employee. However, you do not have to accommodate legal drug use if you cannot find a reasonable accommodation.
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