Americans with Disability Act

This section will focus on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as it relates to the development and classification of a position on campus. This is, by no means, a complete discussion of the Act. For information on reasonable accommodations and other areas of the Act, please contact Employee and Labor Relations at (631) 632-6140 or Disability Support Services at (631) 632-6748.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
In an employment setting, the Americans with Disabilities Act, often abbreviated as ADA, is a federal law which establishes guidelines to provide for a "level playing field" in which people with a disability can compete for and function in employment as other employees. In some cases, this may require the employer to make "reasonable accommodations" for individuals who require assistance of some kind. These accommodations can be material or can be changes in work schedule or work duties.
What are Essential Functions under the ADA?
In an effort to assist employers to recognize the portion of each position which is non-negotiable (i.e., must be performed by the incumbent and no other person), the ADA requires that the employer identify on every position description those duties which lie at the heart of the individual's responsibilities. These responsibilities are termed Essential Functions under the ADA.
Isn't every responsibility an Essential Function?
No. Typically sixty to eighty percent of a position is determined to be Essential under the ADA.
A distinction needs to be made between a responsibility which the incumbent must perform (which is essential with a little "e") and the raison d'etre of the position (which is Essential under the ADA), which no other individual in the office can perform.
An example of this could be a collection clerk's responsibility to take receivables to the bank/depository at the end of the day. Whereas it is critical that money is deposited on a daily basis, and dealing with money is the general nature of the clerk's position, there may be other individuals on staff who could deposit the cash. The responsibility of depositing the cash, while essential (little "e") would not be considered an Essential Function of the collection clerk, under the ADA.
What are the Essential Functions used for? In other words, why does the ADA require departments identify Essential Functions?
As previously indicated, Essential Functions were developed to assist the employer in determining the responsibilities which were really necessary and core to the operation and which could not be performed by another. That being said, if an employee or applicant has a disability which precludes the performance of a responsibility, the Essential Function determination will be the criterion which will establish whether or not the employee or applicant must perform the task to either maintain or compete for the position. If the responsibility has been determined to be Essential, then the employee may lose their position or the applicant will no longer be considered.
Why wouldn't Stony Brook declare that all responsibilities are Essential Functions?
In order for the ADA to work as it was intended, it is incumbent on each department to be candid and honest in making the determinations. On a more litigious note, there has been some indication that the courts will review the employer's determination of Essential Functions only in the context in which it has been offered. In essence, the courts will consider the testimony of current and past employees to speak to whether the responsibility absolutely, positively had to be accomplished by the incumbent and may consider other mitigating factors as well. Certainly, the fact that Stony Brook University has a practice identifying those duties which are Essential Functions from those duties which are not Essential Functions can only help show that the campus acted in a manner which the ADA intended. An organization which declares that every responsibility is an Essential Function will not be complying with the ADA and will be subject to greater scrutiny when defending a claim in court.
Are there any other criteria which help define what may be an Essential Function and what is definitely not an Essential Function?
Because the ADA is a new law, there are fewer cases which give us examples of permissible and impermissible behavior. However, with the advice of some federal documentation and counsel, Stony Brook has come up with some handy tips for defining responsibilities as Essential Functions. They include:
  • If a job responsibility is shared, there is a good possibility that the responsibility is NOT an Essential Function.
  • Typically, 60-80% of an individual's job may be determined to be Essential.
  • If a job responsibility is performed over 50% of the time, it is an Essential Function.
  • "Other Duties as Assigned" is not an Essential Function.
  • Essential Functions, as defined, must be able to stand alone and meet the requirements of the position standards.
Can a job responsibility which is performed only a very small percentage of the work week be considered an Essential Function?
Absolutely. A glaring example of this is the responsibility of an Airplane Pilot to land a plane safely. The responsibility occurs for a very small percentage of the Pilot's work week, however it is absolutely central to the performance of the incumbent's position.
With all this being said, how does a department define the Essential Functions?
Essential Functions are defined and marked by placing an "E" in the left margin of the Position Description and/or Personnel Requisition forms, beside each responsibility to which it applies.
How many positions need to have Essential Functions defined?
All position descriptions should have Essential Functions defined.
What does the term "with or without Reasonable Accommodation" mean?
Many individuals with disabilities are qualified to perform the Essential Function of jobs with or without a reasonable accommodation. If an individual with a disability, who is otherwise qualified, cannot perform one or more of the Essential Functions because of his/her disability, the employer, in assessing whether the person is qualified to do the job, must consider whether there are modifications or adjustments that would enable the person to perform these functions.
Such adjustments are called "reasonable accommodations". Examples of reasonable accommodations include:
  • technological devices (computer systems, assistive electronics)
  • architectural modifications (ramps, elevator, widening doorways)
  • work schedule modifications (flex-time)
  • changes in work environment (lighting, climate control)