Technology and Accommodation

Today, technological innovations make it easier for employers to accommodate disabled employees. For example, many employees with mobility impairments benefit from voice recognitions software that allows them to input information into their computers and interactively communicate (for instance, via e-mail) without touching a keyboard. Special typing aids, including word prediction software, suggest words based on context with just one or two letters typed.

Employees with hearing and/or speech impairments also benefit from e-mail and from transcription software that converts one’s typed messages into audible speech. Real time translation captioning enables them to participate in lectures and meetings. Vibrating text pagers let them know when messages arrive. Employees with impairments also benefit from voice recognition devices and from computer devices that, among other things, allow adjustments in font size, display color, and screen magnification for specific portions of the computer screen. Arizona had IBM Global Services create a disability friendly Web site “Arizona@ YourService” to help link prospective employees and others to various agencies. The new Fire Fox Web browser incorporate special IBM software enabling people to use keyboard arrows rather than the mouse to access pull down menus, aiding some disabled people.

Mental Impairments and the ADA:

The types of disabilities alleged in ADA charges usually haven’t been conditions commonly associated with disability, like vision, hearing, or mobility impairments. Mental disabilities account for the greatest number of claims brought under the ADA.

Under EEOC guidelines, mental impairment includes any mental or psychological disorder such as emotional or mental illness. Examples include major depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and personality disorders. The guidelines basically say employers should be alert to the possibility that traits normally regarded as undesirable (such as chronic lateness, hostility to co-workers, or poor judgment) may reflect mental impairments covered by the ADA. Reasonable accommodation says the EEOC might then include providing room dividers, partitions room dividers, partitions, or other barriers between work spaces to accommodate individuals who have disability related limitations.

The ADA in Practice:

ADA complaints are flooding the EEOC and the courts. However, employers prevailed in almost all – 96% of federal circuit court decisions in one recent year. A main reason for these lopsided results is that employees are failing to show that they are disabled and qualified to do the job. Unlike Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, there’s a heavy burden on the employee to establish that he or she is protected under the ADA. The employee must establish that he or she has a disability that fits under the ADA’s definition. Doing so is more complicated than proving that one is a particular age or race.

A US Supreme Court decision typifies what plaintiffs face. An assembly line worker sued Toyota, arguing that carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis prevented her from doing her job (Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky, Inc v Williams). The US Supreme Court ruled that the ADA covers carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis only if her impairments affect not just her job performance, but her daily living activities too. The employee admitted that she could perform personal tasks and chores such as washing her face, brushing her teeth, tending her flower garden, and fixing breakfast and doing laundry. The court said the disability must be central to the employee’s daily living (not just job) to qualify under the ADA. The Court will therefore look at each case individually.

The ADA imposes certain employer guidelines and some others:

An employer should not deny a job to a disabled individual if the person is qualified and able to perform the essential functions of the job. If the person is otherwise qualified but unable to perform an essential function, the employer must make a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would result in undue hardship.