EEOC Issues Updated Guidance on Rights of Applicants and Employees Who Have Cancer and Other Disabilities

June 7, 2013

By: Christa Richer Cook

On May 15, 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") issued updated guidance documents on how the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") applies to applicants and employees who have cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, and intellectual disabilities.

Each of the publications addresses the expansive definition of "disability" under the ADA Amendments Act ("ADAAA"), and provides that an individual with any one of the four specified conditions "should easily be found to have a disability" under the ADAAA.  For instance, individuals with diabetes are substantially limited in the major life activity of endocrine function and individuals with cancer are substantially limited in the major life activity of normal cell growth.  The publications also reiterate that because the determination of whether an impairment is a disability must be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures, diabetes is a disability even if insulin or some other medication controls a person's blood glucose levels.

The publications, which are provided in a Q&A format, include some general background information on each of the four specific disabilities and provide much of the same information in each guidance.  The updated guidance documents provide employers with some important reminders.  For example, an employer may not ask an applicant who has voluntarily disclosed that he/she has cancer or some other medical condition any follow-up questions about the disability, its treatment, or its prognosis unless the employer reasonably believes that the applicant will require an accommodation to perform the essential functions of the job.  Thus, questions during the interview/application process should be focused on the requirements of the particular job, not the applicant’s medical condition.  At the pre-offer stage, an employer is also prohibited from asking a third party (such as a job coach, family member, or social worker attending an interview with an applicant who has an intellectual disability) any questions that it would not be permitted to ask the applicant directly.

The publications also tackle issues such as:  (1) when an employer may obtain medical information from applicants and employees; (2) when an employer may ask an applicant questions about his/her disability and potential reasonable accommodations; and (3) steps an employer should take to prevent and correct disability-based harassment.  The publications refer employers who may be trying to identify reasonable accommodations for a specific disability to the website for the Job Accommodation Network ("JAN"), which provides information about many types of accommodations for various disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, diabetes, cancer, and epilepsy.

Finally, the publications address two notable issues concerning diabetes and epilepsy:  (1) if another federal law prohibits an employer from hiring a person who uses insulin or who has had a seizure within a certain period of time for certain jobs, the employer will not be liable under the ADA for not hiring that individual, unless the other federal law includes an applicable waiver or exemption; and (2) employers are entitled to obtain periodic updates that an employee is still able to perform his/her job safely if the employee is in a safety-sensitive position.