The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that qualified individuals with a disability cannot be discriminated against in employment. To be a leader in ADA, you need to familiarize yourself with 1) what the ADA is, 2) how it affects managers and employees, and 3) how to create an always-inclusive workplace from the top down. Read on for a discussion of all three.
The ADA: What It Is
The ADA is a law that makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in the workplace. It applies to private companies and government entities with 25 or more employees.
The ADA applies to all workplace activities, including the hiring process, promotion, training, job assignments, leave, layoffs, any termination-related activities, and benefits – in short, all activities related to employment.
Individuals with disabilities must meet the job requirements as posted, for experience, skills, education, and other qualifications. They must be able to perform tasks essential to the position with or without reasonable accommodation, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Managers should be aware that the law covers a wide range of disabilities. The ADA classifies individuals as “disabled” if they have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one of more major life activities, such as their ability to walk or to see. The definition thus covers conditions many people associate with disability, such as impaired mobility (needing a wheelchair) or impaired vision.
It also, however, covers limitations caused by diseases such as epilepsy, diabetes, cancer treatment, and depression. In other words, not all disabilities are obvious or visible.
The law provides that, if a person meets the criterion of “disabled” under the ADA, companies must provide reasonable accommodations to assist them. “Reasonable accommodation” too covers a wide range of responses, from providing wheelchair access in offices to offering audio computer software for people with limited or no vision. It can also include flexible hours to accommodate doctor’s visits for ongoing medical needs, such as cancer treatment.
How the ADA Affects Managers and Employees
Managers need to focus on the qualifications needed to do the job, not the disability. The ADA makes it illegal to inquire about disabilities during the hiring process, including queries about medications, past impairments or illnesses, or reasons for time off in past workplaces.
You may inquire about disabilities once a job offer is made, however, and require a physical exam, as long as all employees are treated the same. In other words, if a physical exam is required for employment, it must be required of all employees.
If an employee requests reasonable accommodations, managers should respond positively and make the accommodations if at all possible. In most companies, the Human Resources (HR) Department should become involved when a request is made.
In many instances, reasonable accommodation provision is simple, such as a chair for a person with back pain rather than a standing desk. If it becomes complicated and it appears the person’s request actually would be highly difficult to fulfill, HR should be involved.
The ADA provides for creative solutions. If an individual becomes physically unable to perform certain functions, for example, a company can consider transfer or reassignment to meet the ADA’s requirements.
Employees should know their rights under the ADA. They should know how to appropriately make a request for reasonable accommodation, for example (see next section).
How to Create an Always-Inclusive Workplace from the Top Down
Companies need to make clear that they actively support the ADA in its mission to provide inclusive workplaces. The following steps help to accomplish that end.
1. Make your policies clear and easily findable
It’s important for companies to state that they are ADA-compliant and make clear what that means, in documents that are easily findable. The HR section of a website or the employee handbook (or both) are appropriate choices for posting this material.
Employers should also make policies for employees wanting reasonable accommodations clear and easily findable. Here, too, material posted on a website or in a handbook is ideal. Employees should feel there is a clear map from their need to its resolution.
2. Train managers on the provisions of the ADA
While creating and posting information on the ADA is crucial, don’t rely on managers to pick up all their information from there. The ADA is complex, and managers need training on its provisions, its ramifications for them, and on best practices to follow.
Schedule regular training sessions for new managers and follow-up sessions for existing managers. Build in a method to test retention, such as a quick quiz.
Make the training very usable for front-line managers, with plenty of real-life examples. Remember, direct-line supervisors are the front line for people with disabilities. They will be the ones who receive a request for reasonable accommodation, for example – and thus need to know what to do.
Without training, supervisors may not always realize that a request for reasonable accommodation is being made. An employee’s request for flex time to receive medical treatment, for example, may fall under the ADA. The manager should not regard it as solely a personnel issue to be handled under the manager’s discretion, but an ADA issue involving HR.
3. Be flexible and creative
The goals of the ADA are an inclusive workplace where all people can achieve their potential – and contribute to an organization’s goals. To that end, remain flexible and creative as you seek solutions.
Remember that reasonable accommodation can be achieved in many ways. If you are conducting Zoom meetings that are difficult for sight-impaired individuals, for instance, consider switching to telephone meetings and provision of material in Braille pre-meeting.
To ace the ADA, you need to know what it is, know how it affects managers and employees, and follow the best practices in creating always-inclusive workplaces.
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