From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Principal Consultant, Team Lead
Inquiring employers and employees alike want to know about readers as accommodations under the ADA. Does an employer have to provide a reader as an accommodation for an applicant or an employee with a disability? Who needs a reader? Who qualifies as one? Where does an employer find a reader who is qualified? Isn’t that giving the employee a bit of an edge? Hopefully the following information will help answer these and the many other questions JAN frequently receives in regard to readers as accommodations.
According to the Technical Assistance Manual: Title I of the ADA, a reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are usually done that results in equal employment opportunity for an individual with a disability.
An employer must make a reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of a qualified applicant or employee with a disability unless it can show that the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the operation of its business.
Some examples of reasonable accommodation include:
- making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to, and usable by, an individual with a disability;
- job restructuring;
- modifying work schedules;
- reassignment to a vacant position;
- acquiring or modifying equipment or devices;
- adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies;
- providing qualified readers or interpreters.
Providing Qualified Readers
It may be a reasonable accommodation to provide a reader for a qualified individual with a disability, unless it would cause an undue hardship. In some job situations a reader may be the most effective and efficient accommodation, but in other situations alternative accommodations may enable an individual with a visual or reading disability to perform job tasks just as effectively.
When an applicant or employee has a disability, the employer and the individual should engage in the interactive process to identify specific limitations the individual experiences in relation to specific needs of the job and to assess possible accommodations.
For example: People with visual impairments perform many jobs that do not require reading. Where reading is an essential job function, depending on the nature of a visual impairment and the nature of job tasks, print magnification equipment or a screen reader may be more effective for the individual and less costly for an employer than providing another employee as a reader. Where an individual has to read lengthy documents, a reader who tape-records the documents so the employee can listen to them may be a more effective accommodation.
Providing a reader does not mean that it is necessary to hire a full-time employee for this service. Few jobs require an individual to spend all day reading. A reader may be a part-time employee or full-time employee who performs other duties. There currently is no standard for providing or hiring readers, and no certification requirements exist. However, the person who reads to an employee with a disability must be a skilled reader, reading competently enough to enable the employee to perform his or her job effectively. It would not be a reasonable accommodation to provide a reader whose poor skills hinder the job performance of the individual with a disability.
The same principle applies for readers in testing situations. The reader needs to be familiar with the vocabulary of the test, particularly if it is specialized or technical. A reader in a testing situation is exactly that – a reader. The reader does not rephrase the questions or the answers, nor would he /she explain or expound upon a question or define words or concepts. The purpose of a reader is to ensure that the test-taker with a disability has the same opportunity as test-takers without disabilities to access the testing content. If a test measures knowledge, then a reader may be a valuable and appropriate accommodation. A reader would be an inappropriate accommodation when the test is measuring reading skills and not knowledge.
For example, a person with dyslexia should be given an opportunity to take a written test orally, if the dyslexia seriously impairs the individual's ability to read. But if ability to read is a job-related function that the test is designed to measure, the employer could require that a person with dyslexia take the written test. However, even in this situation, reasonable accommodation should be considered. The person with dyslexia might be accommodated with a reader, unless the ability to read unaided is an essential job function or such an accommodation would not be possible on the job for which s/he is being tested or would be an undue hardship. For example, the ability to read without help would be essential for a proofreader's job. Or, a firefighter applicant with dyslexia might be disqualified if he could not quickly read necessary instructions for dealing with specific toxic substances at the site of a fire when no reader would be available.
Training situations and opportunities may require a reader as an accommodation as well. Employees with disabilities must be provided equal opportunities to participate in training to improve job performance and provide opportunity for advancement. Training opportunities cannot be denied because of the need to make a reasonable accommodation, unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship. Accommodations that may be necessary, depending on the needs of particular individuals, may include:
- accessible locations and facilities for people with mobility disabilities;
- interpreters and note-takers for employees who are deaf;
- materials in accessible formats and/or readers for people who are visually impaired, or for people with intellectual / learning disabilities.
Situation: Jonas, an applicant for a firefighter’s job in a large city, has a learning disability that limits his ability to read competently when required to do so under time constraints, such as in a testing environment. He asks for a reader as an accommodation for the application test.
- Solution: Since the first test Jonas will be required to take is one that strictly measures knowledge, his request for a reader is approved.
Situation: Katarina, a newly hired administrative aid requests the use of a reader for the longer documents she will review as part of her job responsibilities. Katarina has had a brain injury and finds her comprehension and concentration waning when she is required to read large amounts of print.
- Solution: Since the documents the employee reads will be online, the employer proposes they try screen reading software first in order to see if that will be effective. The material being read to Katarina will also be highlighted, hopefully increasing her ability to comprehend and stay focused.
Situation: Jo, a job applicant with vision difficulties, is required to take a computer test to assess reading skills. She asks for an accommodation of taking the test on paper instead of on the computer because of the visual difficulties she experiences when reading from a computer screen.
- Solution: Because the test is interactive, and the questions will change according to the supplied answers, the employer denies the accommodation of using a paper copy, but provides a reader to assist the applicant in completing the computer testing.
If you have questions that concern providing a reader for an applicant or employee, consider contacting a consultant at JAN for assistance.