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Expanding Employment Protections for Wounded Warriors and Disabled Veterans

Recent changes to the Americans With Disabilities Act make it easier for wounded warriors and disabled veterans to be protected under the law.

Ed. note: This is cross-posted from the Warrior Care Blog.

A recent amendment to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it easier for veterans with a wide range of impairments to qualify for protections under the law and get the reasonable accommodations they need to successfully obtain and retain meaningful employment. Any wounded warrior or disabled veteran looking for a job in the private sector should acquaint themselves with these provisions and protections.

According to the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the body that enforces the requirements of the ADA, the law defines an “individual with a disability” as anyone who: has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded, or treated by an employer, as having such an impairment, even if no substantial limitation exists. Previous to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, the law defined the term “disability” very narrowly, but now it is much easier for individuals with a wide range of impairments to establish that they are individuals with disabilities and are therefore entitled to protections under ADA. For example, under the amendment the term “major life activities” includes not only physical activities such as walking, seeing or hearing, but also other major bodily functions such as the operation of the brain and neurological system. This means that wounded warriors and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can now more easily seek protections under ADA as they look for and participate in employment opportunities.

The EEOC provides an electronic Guide for Wounded Veterans, which answers a variety of questions that veterans with service-connected disabilities might have about the protections they qualify for under ADA.  Representatives from the EEOC were also on-hand during last week’s Wounded Warrior Employment Conference to run a “bootcamp” session and answer questions from wounded warriors and disabled veterans. Here are some key points for wounded warriors and disabled veterans to keep in mind as they seek meaningful employment opportunities.  

  1. Employers cannot ask questions about when, why or how you were injured or became disabled, either during the interview process or once you have begun work. Employers are entitled to ask whether you will require a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of the position and, if so, what type of reasonable accommodation you might require. Employers may also ask you to describe or demonstrate how you would perform the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.
  2. Applicants are not required to disclose an injury or illness that is not obvious during a job interview, and are not required to indicate on a job application whether they have a disability. If, however, you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in the interview process, you must request it. An example would be requesting that the interview be held in a wheelchair accessible location.
  3. Once an employer has made a job offer, they are legally permitted to ask questions about any medical conditions you may have, and can even require a medical examination, but ONLY if the same questions, exams, etc. are required of everyone else in the same job before starting work.
  4. There are no magic words you have to use to request a reasonable accommodation. Simply present, in writing or orally, that you need an adjustment or change in the application process or at work for a reason related to a medical condition.
  5. There is no statute of limitations on when you can request a reasonable accommodation. If, for example, you have been able to perform the essential functions of your job for several months, or for several years, without an accommodation but now you require one as a result of your disability or impairment, it is within your legal right to ask for one. You may also request a change in or addition to an accommodation you are already receiving. It is wise to note, however, that it is better to request a reasonable accommodation before your job performance suffers.

A reasonable accommodation can include: written materials in accessible format such as large print, Braille or on disk; extra time to complete a test if you have difficulty concentrating or a learning disability; modified equipment and devices such as a one-handed keyboard if you are missing an arm or a hand, or a glare guard for your computer screen if you have TBI; physical modifications to your work space such as a change to desk or shelf heights to accommodate a wheelchair; flexible or alternate work schedules such as part-time work, telework and leave for treatment, recuperation or training related to your disability; the assignment of a mentor or job coach; and the modification of supervisory methods.

The EEOC has also created a Guide for Employers that outlines how employers can provide reasonable accommodations and how they can prevent disability-based discrimination. Employers are required under law to provide reasonable accommodations as long as they do not create an “undue hardship,” which is defined as significant difficulty or expense to the employer.

During the employment conference bootcamp session, representatives from the EEOC did take care to stipulate that, while there are overarching rules and laws, many circumstances must be taken on a case-by-case basis, as there are exceptions to every rule. For example, while a disabled veteran coming to work with a service animal would be a reasonable accommodation in most workplaces, in a laboratory or medical environment with strict cleanliness and sterility requirements, a service animal could represent an undue hardship. Wounded warriors and disabled veterans are encouraged to contact the EEOC if they have a question about their specific circumstance, or if they would like to file a charge of discrimination.

The EEOC representatives also clarified that it is not illegal for applications to ask you to indicate whether you are a “disabled veteran” as long as it is clearly stated on the application that the information is being used as part of the employer’s affirmative action program, that providing the information is voluntary, that failure to provide the information will not subject you to adverse treatment, and that the information will be kept confidential and used only in a way that complies with the ADA.

Being aware of your rights and protections as a wounded warrior or disabled veteran will empower you in your search for employment, and will help you succeed in whatever career opportunity you choose. For more information about your rights under the ADA, you may also visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, contact the EEOC directly, search for the EEOC office nearest to you, or review a list of frequently asked questions.

Frances Johnson is a Strategic Communications Analyst in the Office Of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy at the Department of Defense