Now 15 years old, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled persons from discrimination in employment settings. When you first think of individuals with disabilities, the millions of Americans who have some history of cancer may not immediately come to mind. But, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) discusses in a recently published guide, a cancer victim may well be entitled to the protections afforded by the ADA.
Cancer as a Disability
Cancer is a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA when the cancer itself or its effects substantially limit one or more of a person’s major life activities. The limiting condition needs to be more than just temporary in nature. Just what constitutes a major life activity is difficult to succinctly describe, but an exhaustive list would be a long one. Interacting with others, sleeping, eating, and walking are but a few examples. As with other types of conditions, cancer will be treated as a disability if it does not, in fact, significantly affect a major life activity but an employer treats the individual as if it does. This reflects the ADA’s goal of attacking discriminatory stereotypes and assumptions when they motivate an employer’s decision making.
During the time period before any offer of employment has been made, an employer may not ask an applicant if he or she has (or has had) cancer, or about cancer-related treatments. The employer is permitted to ask if an applicant can perform particular job requirements. If an applicant has volunteered the information that he or she has (or has had) cancer, the employer still may not question the applicant about the cancer or the applicant’s prognosis, but the employer may ask questions about whether the applicant will need an accommodation and, if so, what kind.
Once a job offer has been made, the employer may ask health-related questions and require a medical exam, as long as the employer treats all applicants for the same type of position in the same manner. The discovery that an applicant has (or has had) cancer cannot be used to withdraw a job offer if the applicant can perform safely all of a job’s fundamental duties, with or without reasonable accommodation. When an offer has been accepted, the employer can ask questions about the employee’s health or require a medical exam only when it has a legitimate reason to believe that the cancer may be affecting the employee’s ability to do the job, and to do it safely. With a few exceptions, an employer must keep confidential any medical information learned about an applicant or employee.
Within reason, the ADA requires employers to make adjustments or accommodations to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. An employer is not required to subject itself to undue hardship (that is, significant expense or difficulty) in order to accommodate someone. Nor must an employer remove an essential function from a job, although it may choose to do so. As for cancer-related disabilities, some individuals may need, and are entitled to, reasonable accommodations because of the cancer itself, the effects of cancer medication and treatment, or both. A request is necessary to trigger the duty to make a reasonable accommodation, but no “magic words” are required and, in fact, the request may come from someone acting on behalf of the disabled person. The guidance is available on the EEOC’s website at www.eeoc.gov/.