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December 29, 2023 Employment Law

Visual Disabilities and the Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the cornerstones of American civil rights law and has opened doors (literally and figuratively) for millions of workers who otherwise would not be able to secure gainful employment. The act is broad in scope, applying to virtually every disability that constitutes “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Given that over eight million Americans are blind or have serious difficulty seeing, the visually impaired and disabled are major beneficiaries of the ADA’s protections. In 2023, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released updated guidance concerning the applicability of the ADA to visual disabilities, which our Norfolk employment lawyers explain below. 

What Is a “Visual Disability” Under the ADA? 

The ADA’s definition of “disability” is three-pronged. A disability means, with respect to an individual person: 

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; 
  • A record of such impairment; or
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment 

In the context of visual impairments, the first prong is fairly easy to demonstrate — it refers to a person who is substantially limited in their ability to see. Under the second prong, an individual is considered to have a “record” of visual impairment when they have a history of impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, even if the impairment no longer exists. Under the third prong, an individual is covered if their employer takes an action that is prohibited by the ADA based on a belief that the person has a visual disability. 

Whether a visual disability “substantially limits” a major life activity is a low bar. Generally, as long as the individual’s vision is substantially limited when compared to the vision of most people in the general population, they will be considered to have a visual disability. Mitigating factors — such as the use of technologies for the visually impaired or learned behavioral modifications that alleviate the disability — must be ignored when determining whether an employee is visually disabled. Speak to a Norfolk employment lawyer if you are unsure whether your visual impairment qualifies as a disability under the ADA.

Reasonable Accommodations for the Visually Disabled

While the ADA protects job applicants and employees from employment discrimination (such as creating a hostile work environment or terminating an employee due to their visual impairment), it also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. Whether an accommodation is “reasonable” varies based on the employee’s disability and the essential functions of the job at issue. Generally, however, a reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.” 

Examples of reasonable accommodations for the visually impaired could include: 

  • Assistive or accessible technology or materials (e.g., screen readers;  optical character recognition (OCR) technology; systems with audible, tactile, or vibrating feedback; accessible website modifications; written materials in large font or braille)
  • Modifications of policies, procedures, testing, or training (e.g., workplace etiquette modifications, dress code modifications, allowing the use of assistance animals)
  • Work area adjustments (e.g., workspaces with lower lights or audible or tactile signage) 
  • Sighted assistance or services (e.g., virtual assistance via screen sharing, qualified readers, sighted guides, workplace visits by occupational therapists)

The ADA’s requirement to provide reasonable accommodations is not without limits. Employers may only be required to make reasonable accommodations if such accommodations do not create an “undue hardship” for the employer. Like the concept of reasonable accommodations itself, “undue hardship” also varies based on the specific circumstances at issue. At a high level, undue hardships must be based on individualized assessments of the circumstances that show that a specific accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense. If you believe that the accommodations requested by a visually impaired employee would create an undue hardship, a Norfolk employment lawyer can help you make your case. 

Exceptions to Protections for the Visually Disabled 

Almost all federal anti-discrimination laws have exceptions, including the ADA as applied to discrimination against the visually impaired. 

Correction With Glasses or Contacts 

A major exception to the ADA in the context of visual disabilities is glasses and contact lenses. Individuals whose visual impairments are fully corrected by glasses or contact lenses are not considered disabled for ADA purposes. When determining whether a visual impairment rises to the level of a disability under the ADA, the EEOC evaluates the visual impairment as it has been corrected by ordinary glasses or contact lenses. 

Safety Concerns 

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which an employee with a visual impairment would pose a safety risk to coworkers or the public. As such, employers may take actions that would otherwise be prohibited under the ADA when they are motivated by safety concerns. The EEOC uses a “direct threat” analysis in these scenarios, which requires employers to demonstrate “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced through reasonable accommodation.”

Conflicts With Other Federal Laws 

Employers are not liable for violations of the ADA where another federal law prohibits them from hiring individuals with certain visual impairments. For example, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require pilots to have 20/40 or better vision in each eye separately, with or without correction, and the ability to perceive the colors necessary for the safe performance of their duties. An airline that refused to hire an applicant with monochromacy (total color blindness) likely would not face an EEOC enforcement action.

Speak to a Norfolk Employment Lawyer for More Information About Pursuing or Defending Visual Disability Discrimination Claims 

If you are an employee who believes you have been discriminated against due to a visual disability or an employer facing an allegation of visual disability discrimination, you should speak to an experienced attorney who can assist you in protecting your interests. To get started, please speak to a Norfolk employment lawyer at Pierce / Jewett by calling 757-624-9323 or using our online contact form.