Essential Job Functions and the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from job discrimination; however, they must be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination in the workplace. However, only qualified individuals with a disability are protected by the law. To be qualified, someone must satisfy the job requirements and be able to perform the essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Qualified for the Position

A person with a disability is qualified for a position -- and therefore, protected from discrimination based on disability -- only if both of the following are true:

  • The person satisfies the prerequisites for the position, such as educational degrees, employment experience, skills, licenses, and other job-related requirements.
  • The person is able to perform the essential functions of the position, with or without a reasonable accommodation from the employer.

The ADA doesn't require employers to hire anyone who isn't qualified or can't do the job. Someone who doesn't satisfy the job requirements for the position or can't perform its essential functions, even with a reasonable accommodation, cannot bring a disability discrimination claims against the employer.

What Are Essential Job Functions?

Essential job functions are the fundamental duties of a position: the things a person holding the job absolutely must be able to do. A job duty is an essential function if any of the following are true:

  • The reason the job exists is to perform that function (for example, an essential function of a pilot is to fly the plane).
  • Only a few employees can perform the function.
  • The function is so highly specialized that the employer hires people into the position specifically because of their expertise in performing that function.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces the ADA and other laws prohibiting discrimination, looks at these factors in determining whether a job function is essential:

  • the employer's assessment of which functions are essential, as demonstrated by job descriptions written before the employer posts or advertises for the position
  • whether the position exists to perform that function (if the entire job consists of one functions, such as loading and unloading boxes or entering information into a database, then that function is essential)
  • the experience of employees who actually hold the position
  • the time spent performing the function
  • the consequences of not performing the function
  • whether other employees are available to perform that function, and
  • the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.

Reasonable Accommodations Must Be Considered

When determining whether someone can perform the essential job functions, the employer must consider reasonable accommodations. It isn't fair to exclude an applicant with a disability if he or she could do the essential functions with an accommodation. For example, if an essential job function is data entry, an employee with a visual impairment or certain types of learning disabilities may not be able to perform that duty unassisted. However, with the reasonable accommodation of voice-recognition software, perhaps the employee would excel at the job. (For more information on reasonable accommodations, see Reasonable Accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).)

Why Essential Functions Are Important

Whether or not a function is essential determines whether an applicant or employee is protected under the ADA. If a function is truly essential, then an applicant or employee who can't perform it, even with a reasonable accommodation, is not "qualified" for the job, legally speaking. The employer is free to exclude that person from consideration without worrying about a disability discrimination lawsuit, even if the person can't perform the function because of a disability. On the other hand, if a function is not truly essential, then the employer cannot exclude a person with a disability from consideration just because the person can't perform the function. Legally, it may not play a role in the employer's decision-making process.

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