Recently the media has reported that tennis great Serena Williams is prohibited from wearing her somewhat well known “cat suit” while she competed in the French Open because the attire was not consistent with the image of the tournament. Williams, who reportedly almost died after childbirth from complications of a blood clot, claimed that the “cat suit” was a health aide because it is compression clothing, much like compression socks or sleeves, to prevent future formation of blood clots.
While certainly Williams is not an employee of the French Open tournament, the issue does raise the question of whether certain clothing can be a reasonable accommodation of a disability in the workplace under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This can be an especially sensitive issue in jobs which have appearance or uniform requirements. In an office setting, it might be as simple of a question as whether a staff member can wear gym shoes which are otherwise prohibited by the employer’s dress code. In other work settings, with more restrictive uniform or appearance standards, this issue may be more complex depending on the clothing that the employee seeks to wear (or not wear), as well as the reasons for such.
In general, an accommodation under the ADA is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities and perform the essential functions of their job. There are three categories of “reasonable accommodations”:
(i) modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position that the qualified applicant desires; or
(ii) modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position; or
(iii) modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity’s employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.
What is a reasonable accommodation can vary case by case, which is why the interactive process of dialoguing with the employee about requested and available accommodations as well as the essential functions of the employee’s job is almost as important as the final decision on the request. Were Serena Williams an employee who was told that compression clothing was not consistent with her employer’s image when such clothing was important to prevent health issues, the employer would likely have to think twice about whether it was in compliance with the ADA. Variations from dress codes are usually considered a reasonable accommodation unless such variation means not wearing a uniform (especially involving public safety positions) or protective clothing.
Employers should always weight the need for special clothing or relaxation of clothing or gear requirements against the essential functions of the position and any undue hardship it creates for the employer, often measured by safety issues; dollars spent or lost in accommodating an employee; or damage to morale among staff.