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Don’t let diagnosis alone determine disability

by on
in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Here’s a common mistake that even the most experienced HR pro could make: An employee submits an ADA reasonable accommodations request that lists a serious-sounding condition as the disability that should be accommodated. Without further investigation, you start talking about possible accommodations. Maybe you even settle on some simple ones.

If that’s your approach, you’re missing out on an opportunity to delve deeper into whether the employee is, in fact, disabled enough to be covered by the ADA and really entitled to accommodations. There’s a better way.

As soon as you get the request, let the employee know you are open to accommodations. Then, while you engage in the interactive accommodations process the ADA requires, ask for more information. For example, get clarification about exactly what major life functions she claims the diagnosed condition prevents her from performing. Then decide whether she is, in fact, disabled.

Recent case:
Sally Nyrop was a music teacher diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). She has to warm up her voice with regular morning exercises and can’t tolerate hot temperatures. She sued, claiming she was denied a promotion because of her disability.

The school district had originally accommodated Nyrop by providing air conditioning in her classrooms. But when she sued, the school district demanded she prove that she was in fact disabled. It didn’t deny that MS is a physical impairment. It did dispute whether the impairment substantially limited a major life function.

The court concluded that Nyrop’s MS was very mild and didn’t impair any major life functions. Needing air conditioning and having to warm up her vocal cords did not prove she was disabled. The court ruled for the school district. (Nyrop v. Independent School District No. 11, No. 07-4663, DC MN, 2009)

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