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Reasonable Accommodation, Crohn's Disease, And Other IBDs

By Kirstin Heffner, The McCalmon Group, Inc.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended, prohibits treating someone unfavorably in the workplace because of a disability, a history of a disability, or because he or she is believed to have a disability. Like other anti-discrimination laws, the ADA forbids discrimination as to hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, training, fringe benefits, and other terms of employment.

The purpose of the ADA is to make sure people with disabilities have the same employment rights and opportunities as others who interact in the workplace. Therefore, the law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees or job applicants with disabilities, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations are any change in the work environment to assist a person with the disability to perform his or her job or to enjoy the privileges of employment.

In a recent ADA lawsuit, a former Chicago-area district manager is suing her employer, alleging that her employer refused to provide proper accommodation for her Crohn's disease during her employment from 1996 to 2015. According to the manager, she was denied reasonable accommodation and then wrongfully terminated because of the chronic illness. She requests a trial by jury and seeks compensatory and punitive damages, court costs and other relief. Louie Torres, "Woman with Crohn's disease sues Starbucks for alleged discrimination, wrongful firing," www.cookcountyrecord.com (June 19, 2017).

Crohn's disease is just one type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Other examples include gastroparesis, ulcerative colitis, pancolitis, and proctosigmoiditis. IBD is a health condition that affects every patient differently because symptoms can range from very mild to debilitating.

A common misconception about the ADA is that it protects everyone with a medical condition. However, in order to be protected, a person must: (1) be qualified for the job and (2) have a disability as defined by the law. To be "qualified" means the person is able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

A covered disability is a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity. The phrase "major life activity" includes, but is not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, speaking, learning and communicating. A major life activity also includes operation of a major bodily function such as digestive, bowel, and bladder functions.       

Most people with IBDs can work, but some will struggle more than others to perform job duties while managing the disease. For this reason, some may require a reasonable accommodation while others will not. IBDs can flare up at different times. Therefore, accommodations may only be necessary when there is an issue.

People with IBDs may not feel comfortable sharing about their disease and its symptoms. However, if an employee requests reasonable accommodations, be sure to advise your human resources department or the office responsible for managing accommodation requests. You may be instructed to manage or supervise an employee with an IBS and to allow additional restroom breaks, a workstation closer to the restroom to deal with urgency, or flexible breaks and scheduling during flare-ups.

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