Since its passage in 1990, the ADA (and parallel state statutes) has required employers to “reasonably accommodate” employees who have a mental or physical “disability”. That is, an employer must provide a “disabled” employee with what the employee needs in order to perform the “essential functions” of his or her job, so long as doing so will not cause the employer to suffer an “undue hardship.” Under the ADA, a disabled employee who can perform the essential functions of the employee’s job, with or without reasonable accommodation, is protected from termination or other adverse consequences for non-performance.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination based on workers’ disabilities. The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations — changes to the workplace or job — to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs.
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What Are Reasonable Accommodations?
A reasonable accommodation is an assistance or a change in the job or workplace that will enable an employee with a disability to perform the position’s essential functions. An accommodation might be structural, such as widening a hallway to accommodate a wheelchair or adjusting the lighting in an employee’s workspace. It might be technological, such as providing voice-activated software. Some accommodations involve changing workplace rules, including relaxing uniform requirements or allowing more flexible work schedules.
Employers must also provide reasonable accommodations to help a prospective employee apply for the job. For example, an applicant with carpal tunnel syndrome might need voice-activated software to take a keyboarding test; an applicant who is deaf might need a sign language interpreter for an interview; an applicant who is visually impaired might need an alternative format (such as Braille or audio) for a written test, or an applicant who uses a wheelchair might need an accessible interview room.
The duty to accommodate during the application process and the duty to accommodate during the employment relationship are two separate obligations, and each must be considered on its own. In other words, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to allow someone to apply for the position, even if it believes it would not be able to provide accommodation for the employee actually to perform the job.
Reasonable accommodation refers to the provision of conditions, equipment, and environment that enable an individual to perform his or her job effectively. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes reasonable accommodation as follows:
“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities unless it would cause undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way a job is performed that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. There are three categories of reasonable accommodations:
- Changes to a job application process;
- Changes to the work environment, or to the way a job is usually done;
- Changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment (such as access to training).”
Qualified Person With a Disability
You are entitled to accommodation only if you are qualified for the job. You are qualified only if both of the following are true:
- You meet all of the requirements for your position. For example, you must have the necessary education, licensing, language skills, job skills, and experience for the job. If you are applying for a promotion to a position that requires fluency in Spanish or an architecture license, for example, you must have these qualifications. Otherwise, your employer has no obligation to accommodate your disability.
- You must be able to perform the job’s essential functions, with or without accommodation. Essential functions are those tasks someone holding the position must absolutely be able to do, as opposed to unrelated or unimportant tasks. For example, carrying heavy containers of water would be an essential function for someone whose job is to deliver the containers to businesses. Still, it would not be an essential function for someone who does office work and occasionally replaces the container on the office water cooler. Learn more about essential functions. It’s fine if you need an accommodation to perform an essential function, as long as you can do it with the accommodation.
What are “essential functions?”
In order to be qualified for a position, an applicant or employee must be able to perform essential job functions. Essential functions are job duties that are fundamental to the position, and they are the reason the job exists. Some of the factors for determining essential functions of a job include:
- Whether the position exists specifically to perform these essential functions.
- The number of other employees who are available to perform the same job duties.
- The expertise or skills required to perform the essential functions.
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What are the obligations of Employers?
What types of employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers who have 15 or more employees are usually required to provide reasonable accommodations. Some state and local laws may require that employers with fewer employees provide reasonable accommodations.
Accommodations are modifications to the physical structure of your workspace, changes to your job, exceptions to usual work policies or rules, or other changes that will allow you to do your job. If you use a wheelchair, for example, you might need a desktop lowered, a close-in parking space, or a restroom stall that is wide enough to accommodate your chair. If you have cancer, you may need time off work for treatment and the flexibility to work from home or work shorter hours when you are not feeling well. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you may need voice-activated software and an ergonomic mouse and desk setup. If you have attention deficit disorder, you may need permission to use noise-cancelling headphones and to receive written assignments, with clear deadlines, from your supervisor.
Disabling conditions affect people differently. One person may recover quickly and completely from back surgery for a ruptured disk, for example, while another requires months of rehabilitation and work restrictions. Which accommodation is right for you will depend on your abilities, your condition, and your job.
Reasonable accommodations come in many forms.
In order to determine what is reasonable, an employer must look at the request made by the applicant or employee with a disability. Whether or not an accommodation is reasonable will vary according to the position the employee holds, the way their disability affects their ability to do their job, and the environment that they work in.
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Reasonable Accommodation Tips
Here are some tips for getting the reasonable accommodation process right:
- Reasonable accommodations must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
- The employer is allowed to define the essential functions of the job. This is one thing you do have control over, and it is why your job descriptions are very important when it comes to ADA compliance and reasonable accommodation determination. Determining the essential functions is one of the first steps in the process because the accommodation will need to ensure that these functions can be performed.
- Reasonable accommodation requires an interactive process. “That’s just a fancy label, really, for talking to your employee,” Sandberg told us. It’s not, however, an excuse to get unnecessary details about the condition in question. Stick to information about how the employee is having difficulties doing the job and how the employer could improve the situation.
What types of accommodations are generally considered reasonable?
Here are some examples of things employers might consider when looking at reasonable accommodation options:
- Changes to the job application process. “Remember, your obligation to disabled individuals and to provide reasonable accommodation doesn’t just start when someone becomes your employee. That obligation exists even at the application phase.” Sandberg advised.
- Modifications to the work environment – including how a job is performed, in some cases.
- Changes so that a disabled employee can enjoy equal benefits and privileges (e.g. ability to access lunch area). Additionally, in some jurisdictions, courts have found that the change does not necessarily have to relate to essential job functions, but instead to something that makes it easier to do the job, such as providing a parking space close to the entrance of the building.
What are some examples of reasonable accommodation?
Here are some examples of reasonable accommodations that employers have utilized. Bear in mind, since the reasonable accommodation process is individualized, this is only meant to be a thought-starter, not a comprehensive list:
Take a look at the essential functions (define them if you haven’t already) and determine whether any can be moved to another employee or transferred if it is not an undue hardship. (However, doing so is NOT a requirement for employers. Some employers opt for this option, depending on the circumstances, as it may be acceptable for some jobs.)
Modified workplace policies
Modified workplace policies such as the time the workday starts and ends.
Reassignment to a vacant position
This option does not include creating a position that doesn’t exist, but if there is already an open position that the disabled employee is able to do, you could consider reassigning them to that role.
Part-time or modified work schedules
Leave of known duration, even if all other leave is exhausted. This must be within reason and managed properly.
Provide Alternative Formats
A supervisor gives feedback in writing, rather than verbally, for an employee who communicates better through written materials.
An employer changes its practice of only offering parking to upper management to allow an employee who is unable to walk long distances access to a reserved parking spot close to the building.
An employer reasonably changes their office’s “no animals” policy in order to welcome an employee’s service animal.
An employer purchases software that magnifies the computer screen to allow an employee with low vision to enter and read the information on the computer correctly.
Reorganization of the Job
The employer provides a checklist to ensure task completion for an employee who has an intellectual disability.
Reassignment is a reasonable accommodation in some situations. An employer may reassign an employee to an open position if the employee can no longer perform the essential functions of their current job. The employer does not have to create a new position, no other employees need be transferred or terminated in order to make a position vacant for reassignment, and the individual with a disability should be qualified for the new position.
How to Request a Reasonable Accommodation
It is the applicant’s or employee’s responsibility to request reasonable accommodation initially. The employer doesn’t have to anticipate this need. This makes sense, as one of the purposes of the ADA was to eliminate paternalism and biased assumptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot accomplish. Rather than requiring employers to make presumptions about an employee’s disability and potential accommodations, the ADA requires the employee to come forward and request assistance.
Employees and applicants do not have to request an accommodation in writing, nor do they have to use any particular words. (For example, they don’t have to mention the ADA or use the words “reasonable accommodation.”) This rule is intended to protect people who may not be aware of their legal rights.
Even though you aren’t legally required to formalize your request, however, it’s a very good idea to do so. Your reasonable accommodation request puts the employer on notice and sets the accommodation process in motion. A written request will ensure that your employer takes you seriously and has sufficient information to research accommodation options. It will also give you proof, should you need it in a later dispute, that you requested accommodation.
What to Include in Your Reasonable Accommodation Letter
In your reasonable accommodation letter, you should provide all the information your employer will need to begin the accommodation process, including what your disability is, how it affects you, which aspects of your job might require modification and proposed accommodations.
Here’s a checklist of facts to include:
Your name and position
Even if you are writing to some who knows you well—such as your immediate supervisor—your letter may have to go up the management chain, to the HR department, or to other people who aren’t familiar with your situation.
This may prove important later if you and your employer dispute whether and when you requested accommodation.
Information about your disability
Identify your disability and briefly describe how it affects your ability to do the job.
A request for accommodation
Don’t forget the point of the letter: to ask for a reasonable accommodation.
If you know what you need, don’t be afraid to come right out and say it. If there are a variety of options, briefly describe them.
You may want to attach a letter from your doctor, briefly describing your condition and limitations. Or, you could offer to provide such documentation on request.
Reasonable Accommodation Process
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Title I of the ADA, each request for reasonable accommodation must be considered on a case-by-case basis. This section reviews the phases of the reasonable accommodation process. The first step in the reasonable accommodation process is the disclosure of a disability, as employers are only required to accommodate disabilities of which they are aware. It is important to note that the process must be interactive, with participation by both the person with a disability and the employer, so that an effective solution may be agreed upon.
The employer does have to engage in the interactive process but does not have to do something that poses an undue hardship. However, undue hardship is an extremely high threshold to meet under the law. Even if accommodation requested by the individual imposes an undue hardship, under the ADA, the employer still has an obligation to attempt to provide a reasonable alternative. They do not, however, have to provide an accommodation that disrupts the business, poses a direct threat to anyone, or makes coworkers work harder, longer, or more often.
Cost is also a consideration in determining whether a proposed accommodation would be considered an undue hardship. Still, that factor alone won’t result in the accommodation being deemed a hardship as quickly as many imagine.
Employers must act reasonably when determining whether there exists sufficient notice to initiate the interactive process. Never assume an employee is disabled. While employers may have policies instructing their employees to provide written notice of the need for accommodation, the employer cannot ignore verbal, visual or other cues. Make sure supervisory personnel are trained to report observations or information that may trigger the need to initiate the process without a request. Once the employer has notice of a disability and the need for an accommodation, the ADA requires “:
- Direct communication between the employer and employee to explore in good faith the possible accommodations
- Consideration of the employee’s request
- Offering accommodation that is reasonable and effective.”
Employers must also act promptly to initiate this discussion. Failure to engage in the interactive process does not, in and of itself, result in liability under the ADA. But failure to engage in the interactive process may prevent an employee from receiving reasonable accommodation, and may, therefore, result in liability under the ADA.