Americans with disabilities have the right to work and are legally protected from employment discrimination. However, federal legislation does not require employers to provide accommodations that are not considered “reasonable.” Is telecommuting considered a reasonable accommodation? It depends.
Telecommuting as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA
American civil rights legislation prevents employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. However, employers are not obligated to provide accommodations that cause “undue hardship” on their companies. Though employers and state and federal governments see the value of telecommute work, telecommuting is not a reasonable accommodation by default.
In this article, we discuss critical federal legislation that protects Americans with disabilities and the stipulations under which telecommuting may be considered a reasonable accommodation.
Disclaimer: Please note that this article in no way provides legal advice or guidance. The purpose of the article is to inform readers of current legislation and the stance on telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under federal law.
What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that “prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.” It extends to employers, state and local governments, public transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and telecommunications.
The ADA was enacted on July 26, 1990 under the George H.W. Bush administration. It was revised by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 under the George W. Bush administration and incorporated into the United States Code (U.S.C).
Most of the ADA is listed in the U.S. Code under Title 42 – The Public Health and Welfare as Chapter 126 – Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities (42 USC § 12101-12213). It has the following major subchapters:
- Subchapter I – Employment (originally called Title I)
- Subchapter II – Public Services (originally called Title II)
- Subchapter III – Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities (originally called Title III)
- Subchapter IV – Miscellaneous Provisions (originally called Title V)
Regulations regarding telecommunication services for disabled individuals were originally called “Title IV – Telecommunications Relay Services.” Such legislation is now listed under Title 47 – Telecommunications (47 USC § 225 and 47 USC § 611).
Who Enforces the ADA?
Enforcement is shared among various federal agencies. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces legislation that pertains to employment (42 U.S.C § 12111-12117 and some of 42 U.S.C § 12201-12213). Other involved organizations include:
- U.S. Department of Justice (enforces laws related to public services and public accommodations)
- U.S. Department of Education (enforces laws related to public services)
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (enforces laws related to public services)
- U.S. Department of Transportation (enforces laws related to public transit)
- Federal Communications Commission (enforces laws related to telecommunication services)
Though the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy develops and promotes policies for people with disabilities, it does not legally enforce the ADA.
How Does the ADA Define “Disability”?
The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Examples of disabilities under the ADA may include the following:
- Inability or inhibited ability to walk
- Hearing impairment
- Cancer that is in remission
- Speech impediments
- Prosthetic limbs
However, the third clause in the definition, “being regarded as having such an impairment” means that impairments are not “regarded as” disabilities under the ADA if they are judged as transitory (expecting to last six months or less) and minor.
For more information on how terminology within the definition can be used to file or challenge discrimination claims, visit the EEOC’s Questions and Answers page.
How Does the ADA Help American Workers?
The ADA protects American workers with disabilities from employment discrimination.
Businesses, government entities, employment agencies, and labor unions must not discriminate against individuals with disabilities at any point during employment, including hiring, compensation, benefits, professional development, promotion, and firing processes.
The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities. Workers who believe they are victims of employment discrimination under the ADA can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
What Are ADA Reasonable Accommodations?
The term “reasonable accommodation” refers to “any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.” However, employers are not obligated to offer accommodations that disrupt their normal businesses processes or pose “undue hardship” upon the business.
Examples of reasonable accommodations include:
- Installing ramps and elevators to make spaces physically accessible for those in wheelchairs
- Reallocating minor tasks that workers are unable to perform
- Modifying work schedules to allow for more breaks, part-time hours, or shift changes
The ADA also states that employers can reassign workers to vacant positions, so long as workers are qualified for the positions. Workers are considered “qualified” if they satisfy the job requirements and can perform the job’s essential functions.
Employers must provide a reassignment option to workers who cannot perform their current essential job functions. However, employers do not have to offer reassignment if it causes undue hardship. Also, employers do not have to help workers qualify for job reassignments.
Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?
Telecommuting may be considered a reasonable accommodation depending on whether essential job functions can be performed off-site. For example, jobs related to product assembly, food service, hospitality, and retail stores generally require on-site presence to perform essential functions. However, jobs with essential functions that do not require specific physical actions, equipment, tools, or face-to-face interaction may lend themselves to telecommuting.
Examples of jobs that may be granted telecommute status include:
- Project Manager
- Customer Service Representative
- Software Developer
- Administrative Assistant
- Marketing Assistant
However, the EEOC states that employers are not required to offer telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation if they can prove that another option is more effective or that telecommuting causes undue hardship. Also, Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) contributors remind individuals that, “different court[s] might reach a different conclusion on similar facts.” Thus, employees must analyze their essential job functions, their employer’s policies, and the ADA in detail to create a solid case. When in doubt, consult legal counsel for guidance.
Who Can Benefit from Telecommuting?
Anyone can benefit from remote employment, so long as you find the right position and company. Examples of individuals include:
- Employees who experience a disabling workplace injury or illness
- Employees who experience a disabling injury or illness outside of work
- Individuals born with mental or physical impairments
- Individuals who experience physical or emotional trauma
- Individuals who experience onset mental or physical impairments
Though your physical and mental state may influence the type of work you can perform, as long as you have Internet access and can use a computer, you can find remote employment. In fact, many employers provide telecommuters with necessary equipment or allow workers to use whatever equipment accommodates their needs best. Some additional telecommuting perks include:
- Flexible work schedules
- Work from anywhere in your home
- Computer-based tasks
- Learn valuable technology skills
- Balance work with self-care
Organizations like National Telecommuting Institute (NTI) help disabled individuals find work-at-home positions and often train employees on job-specific tasks. However, career placement specialists can only get you part of the way. You have to want to work and learn in order to maintain employment and reach your wage and professional development goals.
How Do I Propose a Telecommute Option to My Boss?
Your specific circumstances may require legal intervention or specific steps to pitch telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. However, the following outlines a general strategy for anyone proposing a telecommute option to an employer.
First, consult your company’s employee handbook for provisions on remote access and telecommuting. If your company allows telecommuting, then you may have an easier time proposing a remote work option to your boss.
If your company doesn’t allow telecommuting, you can still propose a new work arrangement, but you’ll need to be more diligent in your proposal.
Second, assess whether your job is telecommute-friendly. Ask yourself questions like:
- Can you perform your essential job functions from home?
- Can you perform your essential job functions within business hours or your assigned shift?
- Does telecommuting pose any major business interruptions or undue hardship for your employer?
If you are a Virtual Vocations member, use the Telecommute Proposal Packet located in the Telecommute Toolkit to help guide your assessment. Answer each assessment question honestly, then tally up your score. Based on your answers, your current job may be eligible for at least part-time telecommuting.
Next, learn the facts about telecommuting and provide evidence for how remote work options benefit employers with cost savings, increased employee retention, and increased productivity.
Then, document your findings and proposed work structure. Use our Telecommute Proposal Request to organize the information and present a clear strategy to your employer.
Again, your strategy may include additional steps and third-party intervention if you propose telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Consult the EEOC and legal representation for guidance specific to your situation and needs.
What If My Job or Employer Isn’t Telecommute-Friendly?
If your employer does not offer telecommute employment, and if telecommuting is denied as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, you still have options. Contact organizations like NTI for insight and work-at-home job opportunities specifically for individuals with disabilities.
If you want to venture on your own, consider leveraging a job search service to help guide you along the way. For example, at Virtual Vocations, we post thousands of hand-screened telecommute jobs that are 100% work-from-home. We also offer courses, downloads, checklists, and resumé writing services to help job seekers market themselves and attract employers.
How Do I Apply for Telecommuting Jobs on Virtual Vocations?
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