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Even if not job-related, consider granting easy disability accommodations

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some accommodations requests aren’t directly related to the disabled employee’s job functions.

Typically, accommodations allow the employee to do her job—that is, perform its essential functions—but that’s not true of others. Take, for example, simple accommodations like changing arrival and departure times so a disabled employee can take a specific bus or providing a reserved parking spot next to the entrance. Such adjustments don’t directly affect the employee’s ability to do her job.

Those accommodations fall within the scope of the ADA. Changes that allow a disabled employee to access the workplace are reasonable accommodations.

Recent case: Pauline was working as an assistant state’s attorney when she developed arthritis in her knee. She informed the state that she needed an accommodation of a free parking spot close to the employee entrance.

While the state didn’t dispute that Pauline was disabled, it refused to accommodate her parking request. She sued.

At the trial level, a judge dismissed her case, arguing that because Pauline did “not allege or demonstrate that the parking situation limited her ability to perform the essential functions of her job,” the ADA didn’t require it as an accommodation. In other words, the judge felt that only those measures that directly let a disabled employee do her job are required accommodations.

Pauline appealed. She argued that the ADA doesn’t limit accommo­dations only to those that allow em­ployees to perform their job’s essential functions. Pointing to the language of the ADA, she said the law clearly is broader. It states that employers can reasonably accommodate disabled employees by:

  • Making existing facilities used by employees “readily accessible to and usable” by disabled individuals
  • Restructuring the job through part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters and other similar accommodations.

This language, she argued, gives no indication that an accommodation must facilitate the essential functions of one’s position. Moreover, the requested parking space would presumably have made her workplace “readily accessible to and usable,” allowing her to get to her workstation, just as would, for example, providing a wide enough hall for wheelchair access.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In fact, the ADA implementing regulations specifically mention access to nearby parking as a reasonable accommodation. It reinstated her claim. (Feist v. State of Louisiana, No. 12-31065, 5th Cir., 2013)

Final note: Before rejecting a simple and cheap accommodation—such as providing a parking spot or modifying start and stop times—consider whether rejecting the request will cost more in time and legal fees than making the accommodation would.

In addition, remember that disabled employees are entitled to any accommodations that allow them to “enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by other similarly situated employees without disabilities.” This includes the ability to get to the lunchroom, training sessions and even the company picnic.

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