Disability Discrimination - An Employee Must Be Able To Do the Essential Functions of Their Job


Because a claim for disability discrimination is a civil action, the burden is on the employee to prove each element of his or her claim.

This means that an employee must show that even though they suffer from a disability, the employee can still perform the main tasks of their job, either with a special accommodation or without a special accommodation.

For example, an accountant who is diagnosed with breast cancer, will still be able to perform the essential functions of her job as an accountant even though she has breast cancer. She will however need a reasonable accommodation, a leave of absence to receive treatment, to be able to continue to do her job. After her leave of absence for treatment, the accountant will be able to return to work and perform all of her job duties as an accountant.

Similarly, an engineer suffering from multiple sclerosis who has trouble walking and now uses a wheelchair, can still perform his duties as an engineer. He may however need an accommodation – a modification to the position of his desk or the installation of a new walkway in the office -- so that he can continue to work as an engineer designing bridges.

Conversely, a crane operator who has a degenerative eye disease and has lost the majority of his vision cannot perform his job duties as a crane operator because of his inability to see clearly. As a crane operator, the individual's main job duty is to lift items up with a crane and move those items to a specific spot. Since the individual cannot see the items he needs to pick up, nor the place he needs to drop them off, he is unable to do the essential functions of his job. There is moreover no accommodation that could be provided to the crane operator that would allow him to continue to perform his job duties as a crane operator. Likewise, a bus driver with carpal tunnel syndrome who is unable to bend her fingers would not be able to fulfill the essential functions of her job as a bus driver since she cannot hold onto a steering wheel for more than fifteen minutes at a time. There is no accommodation that could be provided to the bus driver that would enable her to continue in her role as a bus driver.

Key Point: To have a disability discrimination claim, an employee must be able to prove that it is still possible for them to do their job in spite of their disability.

What Are a Job's “Essential Functions?”

A job's essential functions are those tasks that are fundamental duties of the position. Essential functions are not those duties that are marginal functions of the position.

In determining whether a particular job duty is essential to an employee's position, the following factors are taken into consideration:

  • Whether the reason for the position is to perform the job function;

  • The number of employees available who could be able to perform that job function;

  • Whether the employee in question was hired because of their specialized expertise in performing the function.

Relevant evidence in determining whether a particular function is essential includes the following:

  • Whether the employer regards the job duty as essential;

  • Written job descriptions for the position;

  • The amount of time the employee spends performing the job duty;

  • The consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the job duty;

  • Terms of a collective bargaining agreement;

  • Work experiences of past employees in the job; and

  • Reference to the importance of the job function in prior performance reviews.

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