On July 26, 2023, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued new guidance explaining how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to job applicants and employees with visual disabilities. The EEOC originally issued guidance on how ADA discrimination requirements apply to individuals with visual disabilities on May 7, 2014. The new guidance revises and amends the EEOC’s original document. It addresses reasonable accommodations, safety concerns, workplace harassment and discrimination issues arising from the use of artificial intelligence.
In 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that approximately 18.4% of all U.S. adults are blind or have “some” or “a lot” of difficulty seeing, even with corrective lenses. Unfortunately, many of these individuals struggle to find employment. Data from the most recent U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicate that only 46.2% of people with visual disabilities were employed in 2019, compared to 78.6% of people without disabilities. These statistics show that there are still significant barriers to employment for people with visual disabilities.
Employers who successfully accommodate job applicants and employees with visual disabilities can gain access to a talented group of workers. They may also experience benefits such as improved productivity and decreased absenteeism from individuals with visual disabilities, decreased workers’ compensation costs and improved workplace diversity. Additionally, compliance with EEOC guidance is required under federal law and can reduce the risk of costly discrimination lawsuits.
This article provides a general overview of the EEOC’s new guidance and highlights key strategies for employers to respond to accommodation requests.
Understanding the New EEOC Guidance
In question-and-answer format, the new guidance provides information on the following topics:
- When employers may ask individuals about their vision
- How employers should treat voluntary disclosures about visual disabilities
- What types of reasonable accommodations individuals with visual disabilities may need
- How employers should handle safety concerns relating to individuals with visual disabilities
- How employers can ensure that no employee is harassed due to a visual disability or any other disability
- How the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms in employment decisions can impact individuals with visual disabilities
Additionally, the EEOC guidance states that individuals with vision impairment, including limited or low vision, may be entitled to accommodation if they are or have a record of being substantially limited in their vision or another major life activity. Accommodation must be based on the needs of the individual requesting them and determined through an interactive process. Examples of reasonable accommodations provided in the recent EEOC guidance include:
- Assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software
- Accessible materials (e.g., Braille or large print)
- Modification of employer policies or procedures, such as allowing guide dogs in the work area
- Ambient adjustments (e.g., brighter office lights)
- Sighted assistance or services, like a qualified reader
Considerations for Employers to Accommodate Individuals With Visual Disabilities
According to the EEOC, employers should provide reasonable modifications for employees with visual disabilities (e.g., flexible scheduling, human or technological readers, or audio alarms) if it doesn’t cause undue hardship for the business. This duty is required under the ADA. Successfully accommodating job applicants and employees with visual disabilities may include the following:
- Understanding when an accommodation request is being made—Requests for accommodation may be made verbally or in writing. To make a request, individuals do not have to mention the ADA or use the term “reasonable accommodation.” For example, an employee may make an accommodation request simply by telling their manager they’re having trouble reading due to a degenerative eye condition. If employers become aware of an individual’s need for an accommodation or believe that a medical condition is causing a performance or conduct problem, they may ask the employee how to solve the problem and if the employee needs a reasonable accommodation. This can reduce misunderstandings and the risk of potential litigation if accommodation requests are ignored.
- Determining appropriate accommodations through an interactive process—Once a reasonable accommodation is requested, the employer and the individual should discuss the individual’s needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. These discussions allow employers to find the best solutions for an impacted employee’s individual needs and show the worker they’re valued. When deciding which accommodation to implement, employers can consider the affected employee’s preference but are not required to do so. Employers can refer to the examples of reasonable accommodations provided in the recent EEOC guidance.
- Determining if accommodation is reasonable—When an individual requests workplace accommodation, employers must determine if they can provide accommodation without undue hardship. Such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the cost of the accommodations, the financial resources of the employer and the impact the accommodations will have on the organization.
- Asking for medical documentation when appropriate—Employers may request documentation to establish that an individual has an ADA disability that requires reasonable accommodation in the workplace if the disability isn’t obvious. Alternatively, employers can discuss the disability with the employee requesting accommodation.
- Communicating openly with affected individuals—An individual’s needs for accommodation may change over time. While some accommodations may be permanent, others may only be necessary for weeks or months. Employers should keep communication open with individuals who have reasonable accommodations to ensure they’re able to be as productive as possible and the employer follows all legal requirements.
Individuals with visual disabilities can contribute to a talented and diverse workforce. Employers who successfully accommodate such individuals may experience improved retention and productivity from valued employees. Employers can use the recent EEOC guidance to create a safe and accommodating environment that complies with federal regulations for individuals with visual disabilities.
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