What are the legal issues related to making career services offices and employment opportunities accessible to students with disabilities?

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In 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The law states: "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity." The ADA reinforces and extends the precedent set forth by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This legislation mandates that colleges and universities provide equal access to programs and services for students with and without disabilities, and, like employers, career development programs are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified participants with disabilities.

Employers and career development professionals are not required to guess or initiate a discussion about appropriate accommodations. Instead, the student or employee with a disability is required to request accommodations.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working;
  • has a record of such an impairment; or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.

Cerebral Palsy, specific learning disabilities, Muscular Dystrophy, AIDS, head injuries, and hearing and visual impairments are some but not all of the disabilities covered by this legislation.

A qualified applicant or employee with a disability is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. People with conditions of the same name often have very different abilities and challenges. An accommodation is necessary only when a disability impedes the performance of a specific academic or employment task. The ADA requires that an employer provide a reasonable accommodation that will allow a qualified applicant or employee to perform the essential functions of the position. Reasonable accommodations may include the provision of a sign language interpreter for job interviews, staff meetings, and training sessions; spelling-checking software; or a modification to the physical layout of the work site to make it possible for a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job.

Employers are not required to make an accommodation if it causes an undue hardship. An undue hardship is an action that requires significant difficulty or expense in relation to the size of the employer, the resources available, and the nature of the operation. Rarely is an accommodation so costly that undue hardship can be claimed. Accommodations often cost less than anticipated. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a toll-free service that advises employers and employees about job accommodations, reports that 51% of all accommodations cost less than $500.

Inquiries about disabilities and medical conditions may not be made prior to a job offer. Employers are only allowed to ask applicants questions related to their ability to perform specific job functions. For example, if a student is applying to be an intern web designer, the employer may ask about her ability to meet deadlines, use computer software, and perform specific job tasks.

Career development professionals on college campuses, like employers, are not allowed to ask students if they have disabilities. Even if students volunteer information related to their disabilities to a career counselor or work-based learning coordinator, this staff member should respect their privacy by not talking about their disabilities with employers unless the students have given written permission to do so. Since potential clients may have disabilities that they do not disclose to career services staff, it is a good idea to offer disability-related services information to all students who access these student services.

For additional information and resources consult the Career Services area of The Student Services Conference Room.

Last update or review: January 25, 2013