In 1990, the federal government enacted legislation that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
Known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA), this piece of legislation included specific regulations for the removal of barriers that restrict facility access for the disabled. For small businesses, this meant constructing and often retrofitting existing structures to comply with ADA guidelines.
But ADA also included requirements for employers. The employer provisions of the law were designed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a physical or mental disability. Although ADA doesn't necessarily mean that you are required to employ workers who are unqualified or incapable of performing a specific job function, employers need to be careful about how they hire and manage disabled workers.
Who qualifies as a disabled employee?
According to ADA guidelines, disabled employees are people who suffer from a disability (physical or mental) that affects a major life activity. The individual must be able to prove that the disability is legitimate and that it restricts their ability to hear, see, speak, move, talk, learn, walk, etc. Disabled applicants must also be able to perform what are described as "essential job functions", and possess the education, skills, or other qualifications that are specified in the job description.
What qualifies as "essential job functions?"
Most discrimination claims arise around the issue of essential functions. Essential functions are defined as the activities that are absolutely necessary for the job to be performed successfully. If it can be proven that an applicant was denied employment due to a function that wasn't essential to the position, your company could be legally liable. To identify essential job functions, you will need to carefully evaluate the position's mandatory skill set, prior employees' experience in the position, and the amount of time spent doing each part of the job.
What if the applicant can't perform essential functions?
If an applicant's disability limits them from performing essential job functions, you may need to make accommodations to make the position more accessible to them. Equipment modifications, job restructuring, and other solutions can be used to accommodate disabled workers. If the necessary accommodations are unreasonable or impractical, you are legally entitled to decline employment based on the individual's disability.