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An Overview of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA and people with rheumatoid arthritis

Lysa Petrsoric, MPH, LMSW

Whether you have recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or have been managing RA for some time, you may have experienced discrimination in the workplace or have concerns about your future as an employee. You have probably heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act, but you may still have questions about how it can benefit you. Learn how the statute applies to people with RA and how to advocate for yourself in the workplace, to prevent discrimination, and find solutions if discrimination does occur.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is a federal statute designed to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities and enable them to participate fully in all aspects of society.

Title I of the ADA of 1990 prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against "qualified individuals with disabilities" in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

The ADA considers an individual to have a disability if he or she has a “physical or mental impairment that interferes with one or more major life activities,” such as working, walking, lifting, bending, eating, etc. As outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations, the phrase "physical or mental impairment" means:

  1. Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: Neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.
  2. Any mental or psychological disorder such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.[1]

The law requires that an impairment must be recorded, most often through a formal diagnosis from a medical provider. An impairment is considered a disability even if it is in remission or if the impairment is episodic, such as with the flares that are common among those managing RA. Under certain circumstances outlined in the statute, you may also qualify under the ADA if other people think of you as being disabled.

RA and the ADA

The ADA definition of “major life activity” was expanded in 2008 and 2011 so that it includes “the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, the functions of the immune system.” In other words, RA meets the criteria.

Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” in order to allow any qualified job applicant or employee with a disability to fully engage in the employment process. That process begins with applying and hiring, and includes being able to perform the essential functions of the job – while enjoying the same benefits and privileges as nondisabled colleagues.

Under the ADA, “reasonable accommodations” can include: making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, job restructuring, and other similar accommodations.

An accommodation is not considered reasonable if it presents an “undue hardship” for the employer. For example, requesting that the work space be renovated could be too costly for an employer and/or disrupt its ongoing business. Additionally, if the accommodation request would not allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, it is not considered a reasonable accommodation. In a legal case, a court may have to interpret whether an accommodation request by an employee (or denial by an employer) is “reasonable.”

In order to request a reasonable accommodation, the ADA requires that you first inform your employer that you have a disability. Individuals coping with chronic illnesses such as RA may be concerned about disclosing their condition. However, the only way to be protected under the ADA and to be entitled to the reasonable accommodation is to disclose enough information to justify the request for the reasonable accommodation. The act of disclosure comes down to a relationship issue between you and your employer. It should be done in a manner that makes sense for both parties and that can benefit the working partnership.

If you disclose that you have RA and request an accommodation, and you are subsequently treated differently or discriminated against by that employer, the employer’s action is illegal under the ADA. You should document any discriminatory behavior and follow the grievance process laid out by your employer, most likely through the human resources (HR) department. If you do not need a reasonable accommodation and do not plan to request one in the near future, you may decide to delay telling your employer until you feel that your RA symptoms may make it necessary.

Each employer has a different policy on reasonable accommodation, but most likely the process will start with the HR department. HR is not supposed to inform your supervisor of your disability without your permission. The confidentiality requirements under the ADA protect information you give voluntarily, as well as any information you reveal in response to written or oral questions from an employer during a medical examination. The reasonable accommodation process should be interactive and timely, beginning at the time you initiate the conversation. If you want to request an ergonomic chair, for instance, you could present the request to HR. Your employer is not required to provide the exact chair that you request. It may provide a less expensive chair. This would still qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of all reasonable accommodations cost nothing, while the rest typically cost only $500 or less. [2]

Employees with disabilities actually often have better attendance records than those without disabilities. In part, this is because they want to maintain their employment, and also feel loyalty toward a company that is flexible with them. In other words, providing a reasonable accommodation usually results in a win-win situation both for the employee and employer. [3]

Reasonable accommodations may come with a pay decrease and fewer advancement opportunities. If a reasonable accommodation means that you cannot work overtime, then this would also mean that you are not a “qualified individual" for a higher level position that would require longer hours. If you asked to be reassigned to a vacant position that is at a lower level than your current one, or requested that some of the marginal functions of your job to be taken away, you may receive a corresponding decrease in pay. Under the ADA, this would be legal. The primary focus of the ADA and the reasonable-accommodation provision is to enable you to continue working in a job whose essential functions you are able to perform.

If you are denied a reasonable accommodation, and you are subsequently fired from your position, you may have a basis for a disability claim. However, the ADA requires you to prove that the reasonable accommodation would have enabled you to perform the essential job functions.

Conclusion

If you have a diagnosed condition, in many cases it will be considered a disability under the ADA. Visit ADA.gov for information and technical assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you believe you or someone you know with rheumatoid arthritis is being discriminated against in the workplace or by an organization, visit eeoc.gov to find the nearest office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Part of the EEOC’s mission is to help qualified individuals with disabilities become and remain productive members of the workforce. It also works to ensure that these qualified individuals receive reasonable accommodations in the workplace in order to do so. Another a valuable resource is the Job Accommodation Network (800.526.7234), a service from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. These resources may be helpful now and in the future as you continue to manage your RA.

Edited by Michael Juhre

Notes:

[1] 28 C.F.R. § 35.104(1)(i)(A); 28 C.F.R. § 35.104(1)(i)(B)

[2] https://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/ada.htm

[3] DuPont de Nemours and Company. Equal to the Task II: 1990 DuPont Survey of Employment of People with Disabilities. Wilmington, DE: DuPont de Nemours and Company. 1993.

Additional reference

Lester, R. A., & Caudill, D. W. The Handicapped Worker: Seven Myths. Training and Development Journal. 1987 Aug 1; 41, 8, 50-51.

 

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