Assuming all of the appropriate criteria are met, an employee suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can request a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from his or her employer. This is a modification to some aspect of the job that will allow the employee to perform the essential job functions more effectively, despite the impairments caused by IBS. A reasonable accommodation is a powerful protection, because it is pro-active, meaning you don’t have to wait for relief in court or through some other administrative process to remedy discrimination that’s already occurred.
The Employer must be covered by the ADA. Employers covered are:
- All private (e.g. non-government) employers with 15 or more employees
- All State and local government agencies with 15 or more employees
- All Federal government agencies regardless of the number of employees.
The employee seeking protection under the ADA must (1) be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (2) have a disability, meaning a have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activities.
In regard to qualifications, if the position requires a certain level of education, experience, skill set, certification or licensure, the employee must meet those requirements. Assuming the employee is otherwise qualified, the question is: would the employee be able to perform the essential functions of the job in spite of the IBS without modification to the position being sought as a reasonable accommodation? Please note, the focus here are the essential job functions, meaning the ones that are fundamental to the performance of the job. This will be determined on a case by case basis. A written job description by the employer would be helpful in defining essential job function, but it is not determinative.
A disability under the ADA is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The term “major life activity” is meant to be broad and inclusive. Fortunately for sufferers of IBS, a 2008 amendment to the ADA specifically defined major life activities as including digestive and bowel function. Whether the condition causes a “substantial limitation” will be applied on a case-by-case basis, though Congress has directed that the standard be applied liberally. An impairment that is episodic or intermittent will still qualify for protection if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. The assessment of the degree of impairment is also made as if no palliative measures were being taken (e.g. no medication or other treatment).
What is a Reasonable Accommodation
There is no absolute definition of what is a reasonable accommodation, but one recognized example is modification of and flexibility in work scheduling. If unexcused and/or excessive absenteeism and lateness caused by the IBS is having an adverse impact on the employee’s job, the situation could be remedied (or at least remediated) through greater flexibility in scheduling. Examples would be time shifting or taking time away from lunches or other break-time to make up for tardiness. Similarly, modification of the position to one that is not hourly, e.g., based on work output or some type of quota should be an option. In other words, the employee can work around flare-ups as best as possible and, as long as the work is completed to a pre-determined standard, there is no penalty for “non-conformance” to the standard work day schedule. These are not the only examples of reasonable accommodations at work that could apply, though they will probably be the frequently requested by a sufferer of IBS. There are circumstances where an employer can deny a request for a reasonable accommodation, but that is outside the scope of this article.
A more detailed treatment of the protections available under the ADA to employees suffering with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other digestive diseases can be found at the link.