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An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

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Substantial Limitation

What Is a Substantial Limitation?

A substantial limitation is a condition that creates a sufficiently severe impairment or disability that limits a “major life activity” or “major bodily functions'' such as: 

  • Walking, standing, bending, lifting, etc.

  • Breathing

  • Reading and communicating

  • Learning, thinking, concentrating, etc.

  • Performing manual tasks

  • Functions related to normal cell growth and the immune, circulatory, and neurological systems

  • Digestive, bowel, and bladder functions

If any of these activities or functions are affected by a severe impairment, the employee has a substantial limitation that limits their ability to work at a job without certain “reasonable accommodations” being made by the employer (see below).

What Qualifies as a “Substantial Limitation” Under the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act amendments took effect in 2009 to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in areas such as employment. There is a three-prong definition that lists the “limitations” that qualify as a disability

The first prong covers current disabilities.

  1. A physical impairment such as:

    1. Cancer

    2. Multiple sclerosis

    3. Blindness

    4. Diabetes

Or, a current mental impairment such as:

  1. Dyslexia

  2. Post-traumatic stress disorder

  3. Schizophrenia

  4. Autism

  1. A cosmetic disfigurement, such as those caused by severe burns.

  2. An anatomical loss, like the loss of an arm.

The second prong covers a disability that isn’t currently affecting an individual, such as when cancer is in remission or after a person has recovered from PTSD.

The third prong covers an individual who suffers from disability-related discrimination. An example is if an employer chooses not to hire a person because they have burn scars on their face. Another example is discrimination of a disability based on rumors, such as if an employer was told that a team member has an HIV infection.

All of these prongs qualify as a “substantial limitation” under the ADA.

What Is an Example of a Reasonable Accommodation?

A “reasonable accommodation” in the workplace as set forth by the ADA is “any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment” that would allow a qualified but impaired person to perform “essential functions” of the job and “enjoy equal employment opportunities.”

To be clear, the term “reasonable” means that the accommodations made will not “create an undue hardship or a direct threat” to the employer or business. Also, the term “essential functions” means the primary duties and functions of the job.

The ADA lists a few examples of reasonable accommodations, such as:

  • Offering accessible parking to individuals who have mobility issues

  • Allowing certain service animals

  • Providing alternative formats, such as giving feedback in a different way (verbally or visually instead of written, etc.)

  • Purchasing a change of equipment, such as magnification software for computer monitors

  • Reassigning an employee a different but similar job position

There is another thing employers should know about reasonable accommodations. Any employer who has >15 employees is likely required to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities under the ADA. Some employers with <15 employees may also be required, but the law varies by state. 

What Is the Process for Obtaining Reasonable Accommodation?

Let’s talk about the process for obtaining reasonable accommodation. Each request is considered on a case-by-case basis. Before a request can begin, an employee must disclose their disability to their employer. Documentation from the employee’s health professional may also need to be provided.

The person who requested an accommodation will be informed that their request:

  • Will only be shared with others on a need-to-know basis

  • Will not be disclosed to their coworkers (as to the reason for the accommodation)

  • Will not go into their personnel employment file (but will go into a separate file only to be shared with safety/first aid workers)

Once these steps have been taken, cooperation between both parties needs to happen for agreeing on an effective accommodation that solves the discrepancy. The final accommodation to be put into place is up to the discretion of the employer, but it must resolve the functional limitation. 

The next steps include making a plan to put the accommodation in place, training the employee on how to use the accommodation, and documenting the actions taken. Over time, the employee should communicate whether or not the accommodation is working, and adjustments should be made accordingly. 

When Can a Reasonable Accommodation Be Denied?

A reasonable accommodation can be denied legally when the employee:

  • Does not have a qualifying disability (or temporary impairment)

  • Isn’t able to obtain documentation from their medical professional

  • Is able to perform essential job functions without an accommodation

  • Requests accommodations for reasons other than disability, even if they have one

  • Requests an accommodation that would pose a direct health or safety threat

When a reasonable accommodation request is denied by the employer, they must consider alternative, reasonable, and effective accommodations. 

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