What Constitutes Reasonable Accommodation?

JOB Employer's Bulletin / 1992
(Second in a Series on the ADA)

 

Dear Employer:

As of July 26, 1992, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires, among other things, that companies ("covered entities") with 25 or more employees prevent discrimination against "a qualified individual with a disability" who is "otherwise qualified" by actively providing one or more kinds of "reasonable accommodation" unless "the accommodation would impose an undue hardship" on the company.

From the point of view of most employers, the important points are covered in two basic questions: "What constitutes reasonable accommodation? How can I be fair to my company and to the otherwise qualified individual?"

Our program can help. Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) is a joint project of the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). We offer free consultation to persons who are legally blind and to employers on any question concerning employment and blindness. In many instances we can answer questions over the phone; other times we can put your company in touch with JOB volunteers in your community who can assist with local solutions.

In addition to our work-oriented program we have access to the services of a sister program, the Information Access Project for Blind Individuals (IAP), (a joint project of the National Federation of the Blind and the U.S. Department of Justice), which offers to covered entities free consultation in meeting the ADA's information access requirements. (Write to the IAP at the NFB headquarter's address above, or call: (410) 659-9314.)

Founded in 1940 and presently having some 50,000 members, the National Federation of the Blind is the oldest and largest consumer group of blind Americans in the country. In our 50 years we have built a national reputation for solving problems and for championing fair play for blind Americans when questions of legislation or law arise. Here are our thoughts on what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship" in two specific instances.

Consider a totally blind woman who is employed as a reporter on a city newspaper. She has built a solid record of achievement equal to her co-workers while working at a job which is print intensive, people intensive, and travel intensive. Many employers would automatically assume a blind person could not do what she has been doing for over 10 years. Please note that she is a real person. We will call her "Miss Example" to provide some privacy; however, she has offered to speak directly to any employer who has further questions. (Call JOB should you wish an introduction.)

Remember, too, that we have purposely chosen someone who uses many techniques, including a variety of technological aids for increased flexibility in an intensive job, but that other persons who are legally blind doing the same job would likely have some differences in the tools and techniques used.

The Blind Reporter

Miss Example works in the features department and is out of the office approximately 40 percent of the time. When researching her regular travel features, she travels to the site with the photographer assigned to the story, or with a driver she has hired and trained to describe passing scenery. (She uses the mileage allowance given to all reporters by the employer to pay her driver.)

To compose her articles while in the car or at the site, she uses a Braille 'n Speak. (It works like a laptop computer but has Braille input keys/voice output. 1992/about $1,000/some variations available.) For some notes, she uses 3 x 5 cards with a Postcard Slate and Stylus. (Looking like two thick plastic postcards hinged together and a stubby pencil, these pocket tools are used to write Braille. 1992/$2.50.) Either device is handy for saving direct quotes in interviews or she may use a small cassette recorder and cassette tapes (standard office equipment) as her sighted co-workers do.

In the office, attaching the Braille laptop to a printer (standard office equipment), she can turn out a print document. More often in the office, she'll use an IBM PC clone which is linked to the office system and accessed by her speech synthesizer and software. (Provides voice output. 1992/about $800-$900/many variations possible.)

Until recent years, for background research and for scouting material for story ideas, such as calendars of upcoming events, she used readers only. (Persons hired to read print aloud at the direction of a blind person. Some were volunteers and some were paid. Miss Example found and trained all her readers.)

Occasionally, a short piece of reading material (such as print phone messages left on her desk) will be read as a favor by co-workers. This informal part of the system works well since Miss Example is very cooperative in offering help to her sighted co-workers when they need it. It is no more significant than it would be for a short worker to occasionally ask a taller co-worker to reach and pull files overhead; or to ask a co-worker who understands the whims of WordPerfect how to change fonts.

In recent years, Miss Example has used a modem on her voice-equipped office computer to access news from local, state, national, and international wire services. (She bought it. 1992/with software about $100.)

She estimates she currently saves about ninety percent of the time and money she previously budgeted for readers by using an Arkenstone Reader. (Scans print/reads it aloud. 1992/New reading machines range from $4,000-$12,000. She found a good, used model for $2,200.)

Who Bought the Tools Before the ADA?

Miss Example decided she wanted to buy her own tools. Machines she used when she first began the job (and had very little money) were bought at her request by her state vocational rehabilitation agency to assist her in becoming "job ready." Later, she wanted to upgrade her equipment, so she bought her own.

Times have changed. Miss Example has proven her worth to her employer. The company is glad to have her and they don't want to lose her. In six weeks, her paper is installing a new office network of "386" computers. Along with a duplicate of the PCs being purchased for all the reporters, the employer will purchase a compatible voice output device for Miss Example. Her employer asked for and accepted her advice on which output device will help her most. (Many variations possible/1992 hardware from $280-$1,200; software from $75-$500.)

After the ADA is Implemented

Once the ADA takes effect, Miss Example might reasonably ask her employer to reimburse some or all of her expenses for reader service. If repairs become necessary for any of her machines, including the Arkenstone, we believe the employer might reasonably be expected to cover such repairs as it would cover repairs to other necessary office machines for any experienced reporter.

On the other hand, if Miss Example were just out of college with her journalism degree and her early experience on the university paper, she might reasonably ask her new employer to reimburse some or all of her reader service, plus cover the cost of the speech synthesizer with software that provides her with access to the office computer system. These tools are basic to her having a chance to compete equally with her sighted co-workers. Perhaps, she might reasonably request the modem (which would save the employer much of the expense for reader time).

The employer might reasonably request that the employee ask the state vocational rehabilitation agency to purchase some or all of these accommodations for the new employee.

Complications

Some state vocational agencies will fund some employment accommodations. However, many state agencies have administrative requirements that prevent them from purchasing equipment for state residents who are already employed, and unfortunately, many state agencies are so bureaucratic—and slow—that many competent blind adults who are not yet employed cannot wade through the state agency requirements in time to be eligible for a job opening before it is filled. Such individuals pray that the provisions of the ADA will slice through such obstructions.

Since Miss Example (through her journalism degree) would have proven her ability to "perform the essential functions" of the job [Title I, Sec. 101: DEFINITIONS. (8)], the employer would be under obligation to provide some accommodations (Title I, Sec. 102: DISCRIMINATION.). By the provisions of the ADA, we believe employers may not rely solely on the existence of state bureaucracies to help legally blind citizens acquire reasonable accommodations. Employers are permitted to consider the cost of accommodations [Title I, Sec. 101, (10): UNDUE HARDSHIP.].

The Switchboard Operator with a Visual Impairment

Our second example is again a real person who offers to talk with employers who have further questions. "Ms. Sample" has worked for many years on a large hospital switchboard, covering shifts at all different times of the day and night. Although she is legally blind, she has enough sight to enable her to use print most of the time by bringing print material very close to her face. She supplements this with voice output devices and alternative techniques for blind persons.

When taking a message for a sighted staff member, she types the message on a sheet of paper from a standard pre-lined message pad. Occasionally, she will print the message, using a black felt tip pen (all standard company equipment) so that she can more easily see it.

When her supervisor gives written memos to the switchboard operators, or when directives are posted on the staff bulletin board, Ms. Sample has permission to ask her co-workers to read them to her when they are not busy. She tapes the material on a small cassette recorder. (She bought it. 1992/about $20 plus about $2 for 3 tapes. Much variation possible.)

Occasionally, Ms. Sample will take print copies of memos home, especially if long or complicated, and have readers she has found and trained tape the material for her. (Volunteers or she pays them by the hour.) She has served on several employer-employee committees and uses her readers to access their paperwork, too.

Some blind operators use a light probe for a multiline switchboard, but Ms. Sample does not. (Shaped like a short fat pencil, it beeps when pointed at the lightbulb for the ringing call. 1992/about $100, plus $2.50 for an earloop (earphone)/Uses regular batteries or electricity/Repairs by an electrician are occasionally needed. This purchase would be a reasonable accommodation if needed by a legally blind operator.)

In Conclusion

How much equipment? Which model? Repairs? How much reader service? What changes in procedure are reasonable? These are samples of the worrisome GRAY AREA of the ADA. We can help. For those employers who want cost comparisons and suggestions for "reasonable accommodations," we offer our 50 years of expertise in accommodations for persons who are legally blind along with our knowledge of adaptive technology currently available.

  • Our interest is in helping individuals with the disability of blindness find and keep full-time jobs in a competent, competitive manner.
  • We can help you find solutions as you build a record of fair treatment of job applicants/employees who are legally blind.
  • We believe that cooperation will do much to increase the job chances of blind Americans and will assist business in the process.