The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) focuses a lot on access for persons with disabilities. It is important to recognize that access means more than wide doorways and elevators; in the computerized workplace, access also includes providing appropriate input systems for computer use. This creates special considerations in IT, especially for managers and consultants. What is the company responsible for, and in cases of consultants, who is responsible for providing it?

Compliance with the ADA guidelines

Under ADA guidelines, employers with 15 or more workers must maintain ADA compliance. This means that persons with disabilities may not be discriminated against based on their disabilities, provided they are capable of doing the work assigned to them. Access comes into play here, as lack of access can negatively affect a person’s ability to perform the job in a way that is not directly related to their disability.

For example: A person confined to a wheelchair may have the knowledge and skills to perform computer programming work, but not be able to perform their job if their desk is too high or too low wheelchair. In companies of 15 or more workers, the employer is responsible under the ADA for providing a wheelchair-accessible desk for the employee. (The image of the wheelchair-accessible desk pictured at right is courtesy of Broadened Horizons.)

Al Zeise, President and CEO of ZyQuest, Inc., says making sure a workplace environment is accessible isn’t as complex as it sounds. ZyQuest is an IT services company that regularly sends consultants to client sites. Al explains that while ZyQuest is often as responsible as the consultant’s employer, most IT companies already have ADA compliance programs in place, and so are prepared to accommodate persons with disabilities. He also points out that desk injuries such as wrist strain are so common that HR usually has wrist rests in stock. Also, many employers already provide ergonomic chairs and other desk equipment to try to prevent such work-related injuries. Some workers come to the job with their own, preferred specialized equipment. One of the larger accommodations ZyQuest has made for an employee is a special monitor for a visually impaired employee.

New guidelines in March 2012

The American workforce is aging, with workers age 55 and older making up 19% of the workforce in 2009. An aging workforce also means more nonfatal workplace injuries, and this is part of the reason for the new ADA guidelines that take effect March 15, 2012.

The ADA gave entities two years to achieve compliance with the guidelines that went into effect in 2010. The new guidelines have a large focus on physical accessibility, particularly of public places. For business offices, the revised regulations extend the original access pathway rules to and from the work location (desk) to include accessible pathways throughout the work environment.

Within the work environment, the new standards call for improved reasonable accommodations and assistance to help employees with disabilities. For example, it is a reasonable accommodation to have another worker courier paperwork on the affected employee’s behalf. It is not reasonable for the office space to be set up in such a way that another worker’s assistance is necessary for the affected person to reach the lavatory.

The revised statute also addressed accessibility for service animals both in the workplace and in public spaces. The ADA defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The ADA does not include emotional support dogs in the definition; however, many state and local regulations do. Employers, managers, and HR workers need to maintain appropriate training on the regulations that pertain to the particular employee in question. When in doubt, the more specific rules take precedent. When making a decision about allowing a service animal on the premises, the ADA limits inquiry options. You may only ask if the animal is required because of a disability (you may not inquire as to the disability), and what work the dog is trained to perform. The ADA allows for the service animal to be removed if it is uncontrolled or not properly trained.

The ADA also allows restrictions on personal mobility vehicles, only when the vehicle is not suitable for the location. Gas-powered, motorized assistance vehicles may not be safe indoors due to the exhaust. However, battery-powered personal mobility devices classified as wheelchairs must be allowed as long as rules can be created that provide for safety. In many situations, it may be necessary to provide a speed limit for motorized wheelchairs, but they cannot be disallowed based on speed alone. Many cases must be worked out individually.

In order to ensure compliance and fair treatment of all employees, HR representative Catherine Deehan says “It is best for employers to be proactive and not wait for the employee to come to HR. Personal information such as health history is difficult to maneuver around, but waiting for the employee to request accommodation is not good business practice.”

Quality training for HR and management on ADA compliance is a must. Good compliance practices are best business practices, and the employees and employers benefit.

Note: I am not an attorney. If you have specific questions regarding the ADA, I recommend you speak with your legal department or lawyer.

Take a look at the TechRepublic gallery Accessibility technologies for persons with disabilities to learn about some of the solutions available that can help create a more accessible workplace.

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