When the topic of the Americans with Disabilities Act is raised, most employers think about the obligation to modify job duties to accommodate an employee's disability. However, accommodation also includes basic physical accessibility. Further, the ADA requires physical accessibility even during the application process.
The ADA requires an employer to provide an equal opportunity for an individual with a disability to participate in the application process. Barriers to accessibility may include physical barriers, such as steps and narrow doorways. Not only must the employer be concerned that its own facility is accessible, it also must be concerned with its recruiting venues. In its Technical Assistance Manual to the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states:
If an employer conducts recruitment activity at a college campus, job fair, or other location that is physically inaccessible, or does not make its recruitment activity accessible at such locations to people with visual, hearing or other disabilities, it may be liable if a charge of discrimination is filed.
The right to accessibility in the application process extends to recruitment agencies as well. If the recruitment agency is inaccessible to disabled applicants, the employer may be liable. The EEOC provides the following example:
An employer uses an employment agency to recruit and the agency places a newspaper advertisement with a telephone number that all interested persons must call, because no address is given. However, there is no TDD number. If there is no telephone relay service, and a deaf person is unable to obtain information about a job for which she is qualified and files a discrimination charge, both the employer and the agency may be liable.
During employment, the right of physical accessibility continues. The EEOC takes the position that even employer social functions "such as parties, picnics, shows and award ceremonies should be held in accessible locations, and interpreters or other accommodation should be provided when necessary."
The right of accessibility extends to areas such as break rooms, lounges, cafeterias, and other non-work facilities provided by the employer. This can include exercise rooms, gymnasiums, or health clubs provided by the employer. This does not mean, however, that the employer must remove certain equipment because an employee with a disability cannot use it (for example, an employee would not be required to remove an exercise bicycle because an employee who is a paraplegic could not use it).
The right of access also includes an equal opportunity to participate in employer sponsored sports teams, leagues and recreational activities. Again, the employer does not need to discontinue the activity merely because a disabled employee cannot fully participate. However, if an employer provides transportation for employees to sponsored events, such transportation must be accessible to a disabled employee.
The ADA is a far-reaching law. One of its key components is a basic right of physical accessibility. Employers should carefully consider this obligation when designing or remodeling its facilities. the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board has issued ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities. These have been adopted by the U.S. Justice Department to establish accessibility guidelines for new construction and alterations in places of public accommodation and commercial facilities. Employers should consider whether these guidelines apply when undertaking new construction or alterations.