Most employers understand that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes the obligation to offer applicants or employees with a disability a "reasonable accommodation" which would allow them to do a particular job. However, it can be very difficult to apply the reasonable accommodation rules to real-life situations. About 25 percent of all charges filed with the EEOC are based on the failure to provide reasonable accommodation. This is the first in a series of articles that will provide you with practical suggestions to help you satisfy your obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to eligible applicants and employees. AN OVERVIEW The employer's obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation is easily stated, but not easily applied: An employer must provide 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 impose an undue hardship on the business. 1. THE PURPOSE OF THE OBLIGATION. The reasonable accommodation obligation is a critical component of the ADA's assurance that individuals with disabilities shall enjoy the same privileges and opportunities as the non-disabled. It guarantees that persons who are capable of working are not prevented from doing so merely because they can not perform, because of a mental or physical impairment, certain tasks which are not an integral part of the job. For example, an employer should not refuse to hire a secretarial applicant merely because he or she cannot lift 75 pounds, if the job really involves only typing and using the telephone. A capable meat cutter should not be turned away merely because the applicant cannot stand continuously for four hours if a simple stool would enable him or her to sit and stand as needed while cutting meat. 2. WHO IS ENTITLED TO A REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION? Applicants or employees who are "qualified" to perform the "essential functions" of a job, but cannot do so without a "reasonable accommodation" are entitled to such accommodations. Thus, the definitions of the terms "qualified," "essential functions" and "reasonable accommodation" are the keys to understanding the employer's obligation. 3. WHAT DO "QUALIFIED" AND "ESSENTIAL FUNCTION" MEAN? "Qualified" generally refers to an individual's skill, experience, education, and training which qualifies him or her to perform the "essential functions" of the job. "Essential functions" are really nothing more than the basic requirements of the job. For example, a filing clerk may be asked to lift 50 pounds occasionally. But the basic requirements, or "essential functions" of the job, are the ability to read, alphabetize, and file documents in chronological order. The ability to lift 50 pounds may be peripheral and easily delegated to someone else and is not really central to what the filing clerk does 99 percent of the time. As a general rule of thumb, a function will be considered "essential" if removing the function would fundamentally change the nature of the position. Our next article will define "reasonable accommodation" with examples, and discuss how to identify and implement them.