President George H.W. Bush may very well be best remembered for his role in bringing the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to the American workplace. Bush engaged in bi-partisan leadership in working with the ADA’s chief sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and the likes of Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Bob Dole, R-Kan.; David Durenberger, R-Minn.; and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah who were key proponents of the legislation, in seeing the legislation through to passage. Bush signed the legislation into law on July 26, 1990.
Prior to passage of the ADA, things were very different for applicants and employees with disabilities than they are today. The law bans pre-employment medical inquiries and questions about disability until the employer makes a job offer, prohibits disability discrimination and requires employers to reasonably accommodate individuals with disabilities.
The law prohibits private employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating based on disability and bars state and local governments from disability discrimination, as well as private entities open to the public.
Before the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited the federal government, federal contractors and federal fund recipients from discriminating based on disability. The ADA broadened protections from disability discrimination to many more people. More recently, the ADA has been amended to broaden the definition of disability and provide further protections to an even larger group of workers.
The ADA requires reasonable accommodations as they relate to three aspects of employment: 1) ensuring equal opportunity in the application process; 2) enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job; and 3) making it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.
The story of the ADA’s passage is a study in collaboration across party lines with both houses of Congress and the Executive Branch focused on the ultimate goal of expanding access for the disabled to the workplace, to housing, and to public accommodations. The ADA itself also encourages collaboration in that it requires employers and employees to engage in what is called an interactive process when an employee requires a workplace accommodation. The process is designed to encourage the parties to work together to achieve creative solutions to barriers to employment caused by disabilities. Accommodations might include any one of the following:
o Installing a ramp or modifying a rest room
o Modifying the layout of a workspace
Accessible and assistive technologies
o Ensuring computer software is accessible
o Providing screen reader software
o Using videophones to facilitate communications with colleagues who are deaf
o Providing sign language interpreters or closed captioning at meetings and events
o Making materials available in Braille or large print
o Modifying a policy to allow a service animal in a business setting
o Adjusting work schedules so employees with chronic medical conditions can go to medical appointments and complete their work at alternate times or locations.
The process of arriving at an appropriate accommodation is sometimes the most challenging aspect of ADA compliance. The employee’s medical provider should be involved. There are also many resources available to employers seeking to comply with the law while minimizing any negative impact on their businesses. The Job Accommodation Network (“JAN”) is an excellent place to start the search for information on workplace accommodations. See, https://askjan.org/.
Although employers can find the issue of ADA compliance challenging, it is important to remember the intent of the law, to open the doors of the workplace to disabled individuals with the ability to work. And today, it is also important to remember that the legislation was the result of a Congress and a President who worked together to make it happen, despite significant political differences.