Defining Four Terms from the Americans with Disabilities Act

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Any employer, public or private, with 15 or more employees has to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even though companies have to follow this law there’s a lot of confusion surrounding how to do so. The terms mentioned in the ADA such as ‘undue hardship’ and ‘reasonable accommodation’ are objective, so employers feel that interpreting them can get murky.

The purpose of this blog is to define and analyze a few of the terms in the ADA. The terms we’ll be focusing on are disability, undue hardship, reasonable accommodation, and interactive process.


This is one of the most important terms because it’s the epitome of this law. The ADA states that a disabled person is one who has, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

The act doesn’t get too specific with the impairments that are covered, but it lists daily activities that could be restricted due to a disability. The activities they describe are caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

The phrasing that confuses most people is ‘regarded as disabled’. This phrase comes into play if a candidate or employee is illegally discriminated against. For example, if a hiring manager were to dismiss a potential candidate because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the candidate has some sort of disability then the candidate has a claim under the ADA.

Reasonable Accommodation

If an applicant or employee requests a reasonable accommodation this falls under the ADA. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a reasonable accommodation is “any change in the workplace or the way things are customarily done that provides an equal employment opportunity to an individual with a disability.” Reasonable accommodations “can cover most things that enable an individual to apply for a job, perform a job, or have equal access to the workplace and employee benefits such as kitchens, parking lots, and office events.”

There are several kinds of accommodations such as adjusting work schedules, modifying the way job duties are done, getting rid of unimportant job tasks (like having the receptionist stack heavy work supplies), allowing additional breaks, having accessible parking, and providing materials in different formats, for example something in Braille or large print.

While it is important to make accommodations for employees not every request is reasonable. Employers don’t have to make exceptions when it comes to essential job functions, and they’re not required to equip employees with personal items, like wheelchairs or hearing aids. Production standards are also another component that doesn’t have to be changed.

Once accommodations are implemented it’s important to reassess its effectiveness after it’s been in effect for a while. If something that was once reasonable is no longer reasonable then it’s okay to reassess.

Undue Hardship

An undue hardship, according to the EEOC, is a significant difficulty or expense. The only reason an employer wouldn’t have to provide reasonable accommodations is if it creates an undue hardship on the company. Examples of undue hardships are the cost of an accommodation, its duration, expansiveness, disruption, or something that fundamentally changes the operations or nature of a business.

The standard for denying a request based on cost is “significant expense”. Employers have to judge whether the cost is too great on a case-by-case basis. In order to assess whether the cost is too great employers have to consider the organization size and affected facility, overall financial resources, and any deductions, tax credits, or outside funding available.

Interactive Process

When a request for accommodation is discussed employers should employ an interactive process in order to decide if it’s reasonable. The EEOC describes the interactive process this way: the employee and the employer “communicate with each other about the request, the precise nature of the problem that is generating the request, how a disability is prompting a need for an accommodation, and alternative accommodations that may be effective in meeting an individual’s needs.”

If an employee has mentioned that they require an adjustment or a change at work due to physical or mental reasons the interactive process acts as an ongoing conversation between the employee and their employer. Employees may express their needs by requesting an accommodation under the ADA or they can talk to their employers about it in ‘plain English’. Once the employee has expressed their needs to the employer they can figure out the best way to accommodate the employee while maintaining the essential job duties.

To learn more about the ADA click here.