Office of Disability Rights

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Who is a Person with a Disability?

A person with a disability is

  • An individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the person’s major life activities;
  • An individual with a record of such an impairment; or
  • An individual who is perceived to have such an impairment”.
  • A person is “substantially limited” in performing a major life activity if the impairment substantially limits the individual as compared to most people in the generally population. This should be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage.
  • Examples of “major life activities” include walking, lifting, seeing, performing manual tasks, sitting, breathing, speaking, hearing, learning, reading, personal care/grooming, and other activities.
  • A “qualified individual with a disability” means an individual with a disability who satisfies the requisite skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of the employment functions of the position, and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the position.

An individual with an injury covered under workers' compensation may be protected by the ADA, but is not automatically protected. To be protected by the ADA, the employee must meet the ADA’s definition of disability. The ADA does not require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee with an occupational injury who does not have a disability as defined by the ADA.

What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation can be described as any change or adjustment to the job, the work environment or the way work is customarily done which permits a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job or to enjoy the equal benefits and privileges of employment as are available to a similarly situated employee without a disability.

Reasonable accommodation may occur in three phases of employment:

  • In the application process - Reasonable accommodation must be provided in the job application process to provide a qualified applicant with a disability with an equal opportunity to be considered for the position;
  • In the performance of the essential functions of a job - Reasonable accommodation must be provided to enable a qualified person with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. This may include changes or adjustments to the work environment, to the manner or circumstances in which the position is customarily performed, or to employment policies;
  • In the receipt of all benefits of employment - Reasonable accommodations must be provided to enable an employee with a disability to enjoy benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by similarly situated employees without disabilities. This would include equal access to lunchrooms, meetings, employer-sponsored services, employee benefits, social events, etc.

In determining whether a requested accommodation is reasonable, agencies should consider several factors, including:

  • The nature and cost of the change;
  • The number of people who could benefit from the change (including members of the public); and
  • Additional benefits or detriments that would result from the change.

What are the “Essential Functions” of a Position?

Essential functions are those that are fundamental and central to the purpose of the position. An agency must provide reasonable accommodations to an employee with a disability to allow the employee to accomplish the essential functions of the job, but an agency is not required to exempt an employee with a disability from performing the essential functions of the job.

A function may be essential because:

It is important to determine whether something is really an essential function or whether it is simply a way of performing an essential function. An essential function is what the completed task is, not how that task is completed. As such, results oriented language should be used as much as possible; an essential function may be for an employee to relocate (as opposed to lift) 50 lb. boxes.

  • The function is highly specialized.
  • There are a limited number of employees available who could perform that function.
  • The position exists to perform that function.

Factors in determining whether a task is an essential function include:

  • The employer’s judgment;
  • Position description written before the job was advertised and filled;
  • Amount of time the employee spends performing the function;
  • Functions performed by others in the same or similar job classifications;
  • Work performed by current and past incumbents;
  • Consequences if this position did not perform the function; and
  • Number of available employees who could perform the function.
  • Marginal functions are useful responsibilities, but are not central to the purpose of the position. These functions can be reassigned without destroying the basic purpose of the position.