A recent case highlighted a important point under the Americans with Disabilities Act that is often overlooked – reasonable accommodations are not limited only to enabling employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs! They must also be provided to allow those employees to enjoy privileges and benefits of employment equal to non-disabled employees!
In our experience, employers tend to focus on the essential functions of the job when assessing a request for reasonable accommodation. And that can be short-sighted. In Stokes v. Nielsen, an employee with visual impairments had received many accommodations from her employer, including special lighting, multiple monitors, and magnification software and equipment. She then requested that, if materials were to be handed out at a meeting, she be given those materials in advance or in large font, so she could read them before or during the meeting. Apparently, the employer ignored the request, and she ended up suing for denial of reasonable accommodation, among other things.
The employer argued that the employee could effectively participate in the meetings by listening and reading the materials afterwards, as she did for off-site meetings. The employee countered that her willingness to get by with inferior alternatives for off-site meetings did not make them effective accommodations for the on-site meetings.
Agreeing with the employer, the federal district court threw out the employee’s failure to accommodate claim, stating, “a reasonable accommodation is only required when necessary to perform an essential function of the job.” Well, actually, that’s wrong, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit pointed out!
The ADA regulations define a reasonable accommodation as
Modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable an individual with a disability who is qualified to perform the essential functions of that position.
Yup, we all knew that. But what not everyone knows (including the federal district court – so don’t feel bad) is that there is another part of the definition:
Modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity’s employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.
So the lesson here? Don’t blindly reject a request for accommodation just because it doesn’t affect an essential function of the job. And yes, this case means that the reasonable accommodation obligation is much broader than most employers believe!