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Chapter IV: Establishing Nondisciminatory Qualification Standards And Selection Criteria

4.4 Establishing Job-Related Qualification Standards

The ADA does not restrict an employer's authority to establish needed job qualifications, including requirements related to:

Physical and Mental Qualification Standards

An employer may establish physical or mental qualifications that are necessary to perform specific jobs (for example, jobs in the transportation and construction industries; police and fire fighter jobs; security guard jobs) or to protect health and safety.

However, as with other job qualification standards, if a physical or mental qualification standard screens out an individual with a disability or a class of individuals with disabilities, the employer must be prepared to show that the standard is: job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Even if a physical or mental qualification standard is job- related and necessary for a business, if it is applied to exclude an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, the employer must consider whether there is a reasonable accommodation that would enable this person to meet the standard. The employer does not have to consider such accommodations in establishing a standard, but only when an otherwise qualified person with a disability requests an accommodation.

For example: An employer has a forklift operator job. The essential function of the job is mechanical operation of the forklift machinery. The job has a physical requirement of ability to lift a 70 pound weight, because the operator must be able to remove and replace the 70 pound battery which powers the forklift. This standard is job-related. However, it would be a reasonable accommodation to eliminate this standard for an otherwise qualified forklift operator who could not lift a 70 pound weight because of a disability, if other operators or employees are available to help this person remove and replace the battery.

Evaluating Physical and Mental Qualification Standards Under the ADA

Employers generally have two kinds of physical or mental standards:

1. Standards that may exclude an entire class of individuals with disabilities.

For example: No person who has epilepsy, diabetes, or a heart or back condition is eligible for a job. 2. Standards that measure a physical or mental ability needed to perform a job. For example: The person in the job must be able to lift x pounds for x hours daily, or run x miles in x minutes.

Standards that exclude an entire class of individuals with disabilities

"Blanket" exclusions of this kind usually have been established because employers believed them to be necessary for health or safety reasons. Such standards also may be used to screen out people who an employer fears, or assumes, may cause higher medical insurance or workers' compensation costs, or may have a higher rate of absenteeism.

Employers who have such standards should review them carefully. In most cases, they will not meet ADA requirements.

The ADA recognizes legitimate employer concerns and the requirements of other laws for health and safety in the workplace. An employer is not required to hire or retain an individual who would pose a "direct threat" to health or safety (see below). But the ADA requires an objective assessment of a particular individual's current ability to perform a job safely and effectively. Generalized "blanket" exclusions of an entire group of people with a certain disability prevent such an individual consideration. Such class-wide exclusions that do not reflect up-to-date medical knowledge and technology, or that are based on fears about future medical or workers' compensation costs, are unlikely to survive a legal challenge under the ADA. (However, the ADA recognizes employers' obligations to comply with Federal laws that mandate such exclusions in certain occupations. [See Health and Safety Requirements of Other Federal or State Laws below.])

The ADA requires that:

any determination of a direct threat to health or safety must be based on an individualized assessment of objective and specific evidence about a particular individual's present ability to perform essential job functions, not on general assumptions or speculations about a disability. (See Standards Necessary for Health and Safety: A "Direct Threat" below).

For example: An employer who excludes all persons who have epilepsy from jobs that require use of dangerous machinery will be required to look at the life experience and work history of an individual who has epilepsy. The individual evaluation should take into account the type of job, the degree of seizure control, the type(s) of seizures (if any), whether the person has an "aura" (warning of seizure), the person's reliability in taking prescribed anti-convulsant medication, and any side effects of such medication. Individuals who have no seizures because they regularly take prescribed medication, or who have sufficient advance warning of a seizure so that they can stop hazardous activity, would not pose a "direct threat" to safety.

Standards that measure needed physical or mental ability to perform a job

Specific physical or mental abilities may be needed to perform certain types of jobs.

For example: Candidates for jobs such as airline pilots, policemen and firefighters may be required to meet certain physical and psychological qualifications.

In establishing physical or mental standards for such jobs, an employer does not have to show that these standards are "job related," justified by "business necessity" or that they relate only to "essential" functions of the job. However, if such a standard screens out an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, the employer must be prepared to show that the standard, as applied, is job- related and consistent with business necessity under the ADA. And, even if this can be shown, the employer must consider whether this individual could meet the standard with a reasonable accommodation.

For example: A police department that requires all its officers to be able to make forcible arrests and to perform all job functions in the department might be able to justify stringent physical requirements for all officers, if in fact they are all required to be available for any duty in an emergency.

However, if a position in a mailroom required as a qualification standard that the person in the job be able to reach high enough to place and retrieve packages from 6-foot high shelves, an employer would have to consider whether there was an accommodation that would enable a person with a disability that prevented reaching that high to perform these essential functions. Possible accommodations might include lowering the shelf-height, providing a step stool or other assistive device.

Physical agility tests

An employer may give a physical agility test to determine physical qualifications necessary for certain jobs prior to making a job offer if it is simply an agility test and not a medical examination. Such a test would not be subject to the prohibition against pre-employment medical examinations if given to all similarly situated applicants or employees, regardless of disability. However, if an agility test screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability or a class of such individuals because of disability, the employer must be prepared to show that the test is job-related and consistent with business necessity and that the test or the job cannot be performed with a reasonable accommodation.

It is important to understand the distinction between physical agility tests and prohibited pre-employment medical inquiries and examinations. One difference is that agility tests do not involve medical examinations or diagnoses by a physician, while medical examinations may involve a doctor.

For example: At the pre-offer stage, a police department may conduct an agility test to measure a candidate's ability to walk, run, jump, or lift in relation to specific job duties, but it cannot require the applicant to have a medical screening before taking the agility test. Nor can it administer a medical examination before making a conditional job offer to this person.

Some employers currently may require a medical screening before administering a physical agility test to assure that the test will not harm the applicant. There are two ways that an employer can handle this problem under the ADA:

  • the employer can request the applicant's physician to respond to a very restricted inquiry which describes the specific agility test and asks: "Can this person safely perform this test?"
  • the employer may administer the physical agility test after making a conditional job offer, and in this way may obtain any necessary medical information, as permitted under the ADA. (See Chapter VI.) The employer may find it more cost-efficient to administer such tests only to those candidates who have met other job qualifications.
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