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Some considerations about how far a manager must go in order to accommodate a disability.

Well wouldn't you just know it? Here I had these plans to talk with you about management issues, career issues, corporate culture considerations. All this wonderful research is sitting here on my desk pleading to be told.

And what do you know? A friend stopped by and started talking about some workplace issues and how they're affecting the environment. Then another friend stopped by and talked about some other issues. Being the friend that I am, I stopped to answer their questions and talk with them about their concerns.

My notes are very patiently waiting their turn. I know that the subject is compelling. However, the questions these friends and I discussed are in-your-face, live circumstances driving whether their careers are going forward or heading in another direction. I consider whether the story should be changed.

Then a few other friends ask questions and I ultimately decide that today we're going to talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and "reasonable accommodation."

"Oh that reasonable accommodation stuff," you're thinking to yourself, "It doesn't affect me. There's no one in our office who's disabled." Well, perception is one thing; condition is quite another. But that is yet another topic for discussion.

Title I of the ADA defines "disability" and who a "qualified" individual is in addition to what constitutes a "reasonable accommodation."

  • Disability - Physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities. (emphasis supplied)
  • Qualified Individual with a Disability - An individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the position they hold or desire. (emphasis supplied)
  • Reasonable Accommodation -
    1. Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.
    2. Job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment ...
So today Leslie comes to you and complains. Sydney's skin moisturizer has a scent. Leslie has a sensitivity to scent -- all scent -- it's called "multiple chemical sensitivity." It causes swelling of the bronchi and suffocating constriction of all air passages. Leslie becomes agitated and excited when this happens. Leslie gets debilitating headaches. The symptoms last for days -- as many as three or four -- and forces Leslie to stay in bed until the episodes subside. The bottom line is, Leslie cannot perform the essential functions of the job. Leslie is asking you for accommodation.

There really are environmental disabilities. These are not pyschosomatic illnesses. The good news is there are adjustments that can be made so that the employee/employer relationship can continue. I think this hypothetical condition qualifies as a disability. There is a major life function that is affected and is substantially limited.

Now whether Leslie is a "qualified" individual is another question. You need to determine whether giving Leslie a reasonable accommodation for this environmental condition will cause his/her work performance to return to adequate or above average level.

So what's reasonable or is anything reasonable? Does this really apply to your workspace? There are reasonable things that can be done. There are some things that are unreasonable. Reasonable accommodation applies to every workplace. The only exception is when the "reasonable accommodation" will pose an undue hardship, significant difficulty or expense on the employer.

You might consider asking your staff to refrain from using scents and establishing a fragrance-free workplace or zone. Another step that could be taken is to provide the person with the sensitivity with an air filter or move their workspace to an area that has lower traffic.

What about their attending essential group and team meetings? Perhaps there is some way that they can participate via a web conference or chat room from another part of the office or building. These are low-cost, minor adjustments that should not have a significant impact on the company budget. The employee is still part of the workforce and has received adjustments so that they can continue to interact with the rest of the office. If there is document sharing or exchange that is part of the job function, again, this can be done via an intranet or via document sharing from web-based virtual harddrives. [refer to Space, June 2, 2000]

However, as I said earlier, Leslie becomes quite anxious and agitated when these episodes occur. Understandably so. As with those who are acutely anemic and try to consume a milk product or work in a room over 65 degrees Fah., Leslie can't breathe. Leslie has developed a hostile attitude toward Sydney because Sydney's cologne, innocuous as it seems to be, is the source of every episode. Leslie wants to punch Sydney's lights out for causing these disruptions and says as much.

Uh-oh. Now you've got a hostile workplace and a threat. Now you need to decide what to do about the threat.

And with that, I'll leave you until next time.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: MCS affects a small part of the working population. Discussion of this disability should in no way be construed as singling out any individual or current work situation. Instead, the focus should be on disabilities in the workplace and issues surrounding accommodation.]

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Janet at Fleur de Lis Perfumes

Sites on ADA:

Sites with information about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity:


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Originally published July 25, 2000