“Essential Functions” on Job Listings Create Barriers for Employees and Employers Alike

A person sitting at their desk using a laptop to search for a job.

Recently, my partner and I sent out a quote to a medical device company that wanted to make sure their product was accessible to people with disabilities. We test websites and apps and make recommendations to developers so that they build their apps in a way that people who are deaf, blind, or have other disabilities can access them.

In this particular bid, we had a routine line item that said we would test the app for Braille users. The bid was accepted, but with the Braille line item crossed out. On a conference call, we inquired as to why they didn’t want us to test for Braille.

“No one uses Braille with our device! Why would we test for Braille? It just seemed unnecessary,” explained the woman on the call in a skeptical voice.

My partner said that people did, in fact, use their product with Braille. I started thinking of who I could produce to validate this claim. I was sure that I could find a few people in about 3 phone calls. But we were misunderstanding the misunderstanding.

“How? I mean, the monitor is just…flat. There is no Braille on the internet,” she said, sounding like she thought we were a little foolish or maybe even trying to scam her.

Oh! Now we understood the problem. My partner turned to me and I handed him my Braille display to demonstrate to her how the internet actually does include Braille. My partner is hearing but blind. He uses the computer by listening to speech reading software. My Deafblindness makes hearing a speech reader really difficult. I supplement my computer usage with a Braille display. This is a device that connects to a computer via Bluetooth and uses mechanical pins to turn the computer’s speech into Braille words that I can feel.

It’s not surprising that many people have never seen or heard of a Braille display or a Braille computer. It is part of our job to explain these things to our clients that seek out our expertise to help them learn about accessibility and inclusiveness. However, what does surprise me is how often decisions are made based on a lack of knowledge about these things. Asking what we meant by Braille testing was perfectly understandable. But our client had made an assumption before asking anything and had based a decision on what she didn’t know.

This is one of the most perplexing things about ableism. I don’t think anyone with a disability expects everyone to know everything about how we adapt and use alternative methods, technology and supports to do what we do. But rather than ask us, who are the experts in our own disabilities, they simply assume it can’t be done. This happens to us almost daily.

Often, blind people use a mobile phone with either a magnified screen or voice output, and deal with people telling them that their phone is not turned on or that they can’t use a smartphone. Sometimes, people ask me who did my hair that morning or who brought me to a location and when I answer, “I did,” I get a “yeah, right” of disbelief. I have had people tell me that my children can’t be mine because disabled people can’t have children. Many disabled people go through life knowing all kinds of disabled people doing all kinds of things that the mainstream society does not think is possible.

My friend Kory is a blind mechanic who is a whiz at all things vehicle-related. My friend John, a wheelchair user, is a black belt in martial arts. My friend Haben is a Deafblind salsa dancer, My friend Mark is a blind carpenter. My friend James is a national disability rights leader with a cognitive disability. I could go on and on. Yet, I still get on the train to go to work and people ask me where my caregiver is and if I’m lost?

Yet, when it comes to job openings, it is these same people who don’t know about how we use digital Braille or iPhones or curling irons who write the “essential functions” of the job. Essential functions are often used as way of legally discriminating against disabled people; a workaround to avoid the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Recently, I saw one of the most blatant uses of “essential functions” in a job listing for the City of Mesquite, Texas. There was actually a table that listed hearing and vision. The table required that a checkmark be made in one of three columns: average, low, or N/A. I looked in all the recent job openings in the City of Mesquite. All jobs required that an applicant have average hearing and vision. All of them. All of them also required that the applicant have a valid driver’s license.

An emergency dispatch operator required hearing and vision and a driver’s license. I know of probably hundreds of blind people who work as phone agents in various roles. They handle medical information and charting, banking and finance records, all kinds of complex information in multiple screens while talking to a member of the public. I wondered why average vision was required for that job. Could it be because the person who wrote the listing had no knowledge of how a blind person can use a computer with voice or braille? Even a Deaf person might be able to do a text-based dispatcher job (more and more common these days.) And I have no understanding of how a dispatcher utilizes driving in their job.

The original listing that got my attention was for an animal control officer. Now this job is obviously very physical and may actually require transporting oneself from place to place. But I wondered if hearing was really necessary. Or, if someone had a motor disability, but had some workarounds that would allow them to lift and transport animals, would they still be barred from applying. I mean, I know quadriplegics that have come up with all kinds of contraptions to lift and haul their own children around. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about the job or how different people with disabilities–who likely have far more experiences that I do handling animals–may have come up with ways to do these tasks.

And the people who write up job listings don’t know either. If you asked me how a blind person fixes a car, I would have to say I don’t know either. But I would direct you to Kory, my blind mechanic friend and he could tell you. He knows because he is the expert on ways to fix cars nonvisually; the average auto shop looking for a mechanic is not. What the HR person is an expert on is the job itself. What are the essential functions of the job? For the animal control officer, one must be able to transport sometimes sick and dangerous animals by moving them from often inaccessible settings to a vehicle.

An essential function of the dispatch job might be to communicate effectively with a wide range of people on the phone while at the same time looking up information and passing it on to emergency responders. An essential function is not “average vision.” An essential function for a nurse might be to “be alerted to and respond appropriately to emergencies.” It is not necessarily an essential function to “be able to hear alarms and sirens.” There are Deaf nurses, and through technology such as vibrating and light pulsing alert systems, they are able to be alerted to and respond appropriately to emergencies.”

A pizza delivery person does need to have a valid driver’s license. An administrative assistant probably does not need one, nor do they likely need average vision or hearing (and often, they don’t really need to squat and lift 50 pounds). Sure, there are some gray areas. If a social worker occasionally needs to transport a client, can she use a ride service, hire someone, or trade jobs with someone else temporarily? Employers do themselves a favor by being open to different types of solutions to different types of jobs. The asset of diversity is all about getting fresh ideas injected into the workplace. Disabled people are resourceful by necessity, and chock full of fresh ideas. It depends on the situation, of course, but if highly qualified workers can’t even get in the door because of being screened out by an ill-thought out essential function, everyone loses.

Essential functions should not list physical characteristics or requirements of the applicants at all. Doing so is about as blatant as putting up a “people of color need not apply” sign. Essential functions should be, essential functions of the job, not the person. The average HR person or manager making out a job listing is just not well-enough informed to make such determinations as what physical characteristics are required for the job, nor what technology and strategies people use to accommodate disabilities. They should focus on the tasks of the job, and let the applicant explain how they would accomplish those tasks.

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Lisa Ferris, with partner Niklas Petersson, founded Miles Access Skills Training (MAST), which teaches and promotes the use of technology and alternative skills to people with disabilities, as well as consulting with organizations that want to become more accessible. They are Deafblind and blind, respectively, which they feel is an asset in their line of work. When not working, they enjoy spending time outdoors with their guide dogs and 3 children. Find out more at lisaferris.net or blindmast.com