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ADA: Essential Functions

Newsletter • volume 1 • number 5

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act repeatedly refers to "essential functions" of a job, nowhere does the Act actually define "essential functions." The ambiguity of language may be a problem when employers write job descriptions.

The ADA does, however, list several conditions under which a function could be called "essential:" the position exists to perform the function; there are a limited number of other employees available to perform the function, or among whom the function can be distributed; a function is highly specialized.

The amount of time spent performing a particular function does not necessarily affect its being essential. For example, a lifeguard is required to know CPR, although the actual amount of use would presumably be minimal.

In the interview schedule, there should be at least one specific question about each essential function. If a candidate says he/she cannot perform an essential function of the job, the interviewer should ask, "Why not?" If the applicant indicates that the reason relates to a disability, then the interviewer should explore what accommodations might be of assistance.