EEOC Issues New ADA Guidance On Visual Disabilities And Discussing AI Impact

By Alex W. Karasik, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways:  On July 26, 2023, the EEOC issued a new Guidance entitled “Visual Disabilities in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act” (the “Guidance”).  This document is an excellent resource for employers, and provides insight into how to handle situations that may arise with job applicants and employees that have visual disabilities. Notably, for employers that use algorithms or artificial intelligence (“AI”) as a decision-making tool, the Guidance makes clear that employers have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for applicants or employees with visual disabilities who request them in connection with these technologies.

The EEOC’s Guidance

The EEOC’s Guidance endeavors to address four subjects, including: (1) when an employer may ask an applicant or employee questions about a vision impairment and how an employer should treat voluntary disclosure; (2) what types of reasonable accommodations applicants or employees with visual disabilities may need; (3) how an employer should handle safety concerns about applicants and employees with visual disabilities; and (4) how an employer can ensure that no employee is harassed because of a visual disability.

The EEOC notes that if an applicant has an obvious impairment or voluntarily discloses the existence of a vision impairment, and based on this information, the employer reasonably believes that the applicant will require an accommodation to perform the job, the employer may ask whether the applicant will need an accommodation (and, if so, what type). Some potential accommodations may include: (i) assistive technology materials, such as screen readers and website accessibility modifications; (ii) personnel policy modifications, such as allowing the use of sunglasses, service animals, and customized work schedules; (iii) making adjustments to the work area, including brighter lighting; and (iv) allowing worksite visits by orientation, mobility, or assistive technology professionals.

For safety concerns, the Guidance clarifies that if the employer has concerns that the applicant’s vision impairment may create a safety risk in the workplace, the employer may conduct an individualized assessment to evaluate whether the individual’s impairment poses a “direct threat,” which is defined as, “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the applicant or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced through reasonable accommodation.”  For harassment concerns, the EEOC notes that employers should make clear that they will not tolerate harassment based on disability or on any other protected basis, including visual impairment.  This can be done in a number of ways, such as through a written policy, employee handbooks, staff meetings, and periodic training.

Artificial Intelligence Implications

As we previously blogged about here, the EEOC has made it a priority to examine whether the use of artificial intelligence in making employment decisions can disparately impact various classes of individuals.  In the Q&A section, the Guidance tackles this issue by posing the following hypothetical question: “Does an employer have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations to applicants or employees with visual disabilities who request them in connection with the employer’s use of software that uses algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI) as decision-making tools?”According to the EEOC, the answer is “yes.”

The Guidance opines that AI tools may intentionally or unintentionally “screen out” individuals with disabilities in the application process and when employees are on the job, even though such individuals are able to do jobs with or without reasonable accommodations. As an example, an applicant or employee may have a visual disability that reduces the accuracy of an AI assessment used to evaluate the applicant or employee. In those situations, the EEOC notes that the employer has an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation, such as an alternative testing format, that would provide a more accurate assessment of the applicant’s or employee’s ability to perform the relevant job duties, absent undue hardship.

Takeaways For Employers

The EEOC’s Guidance serves a reminder that the Commission will vigorously seek to protect the workplace rights of individuals with disabilities, including those with visual impairments. When employers are confronted with situations where an applicant or employee requests reasonable accommodations, the Guidance provides a valuable roadmap for how to handle such requests, and offers a myriad of potential solutions.

From an artificial intelligence perspective, the Guidance’s reference to the use of AI tools suggests that employers must be flexible in terms providing alternative solutions to visually impaired employees and applicants. In these situations, employers should be prepared to utilize alternative means of evaluation.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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