If you or someone you know finds yourself needing specific accommodations in order to properly fulfil the requirements of a job, finding the right way to approach your employer can be tricky. More than anything, if you have some kind of challenge that has the potential to affect your work without accommodations, all you want is not to make waves or seem “too difficult.”
While it should never feel intimidating to advocate for yourself, it might be hard to figure out the best way to ask for reasonable accommodations. We have compiled some information that may be helpful when preparing yourself to ask for accommodations in your workplace.
Even though many people struggle with the idea of disclosing a disability, disclosure can be quite simple, and it can help you secure accommodations to help you succeed in the workplace. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is no specific time frame for requesting an accommodation. Still, we recommend that you disclose your disability and request accommodations before you have difficulties on the job, or at least before they become serious and affect your performance. Open communication during disclosure and the accommodation process is probably the most direct and effective tool for handling the issues that arise and getting back on track to completing work assignments or starting a new job with the tools you need. Once you’re ready, follow these tips to help you through the process.
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What is a reasonable accommodation?
The “reasonable accommodation” phrase used by the ADA is a bit vague. In general, it means a change in the work environment or routine that allows you to apply for or perform the basic functions of the role. This designation usually applies to changes that enable equal access to office spaces and technology (we’ll give examples later). “Reasonable” means the change shouldn’t keep you from carrying out the job’s essential tasks.
Who is eligible?
Not every organization is legally required to comply with the ADA. You have federal ADA protection if you work for (or are applying to) a private employer with 15 or more employees, a government employer, or a labour organization. If your job doesn’t fit any of these categories, you should still ask for accommodation if you believe it would help your work. Many employers will be willing to work with you on a solution, whether they’re legally required to or not.
The definition of disability is a little trickier, but it’s pretty broad. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines a disability as “an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” The impairment doesn’t have to be permanent, physical, or visible. Mental health issues, for instance, may qualify as disabilities, depending on how much they limit your ability to function.
What can need to be accommodated?
The duty to accommodate can arise in different situations as a result of a person’s disability, age, religion, marital status, immigration status, ethnic or racial identity or family obligations or other factors listed in the Code.
Most commonly, the duty to accommodate arises in the employment context where an employee suffers a disability such as an injury, illness or addiction that prevents them from continuing to do his job in the same manner as before. Even though the employee is no longer able to perform in the same way, the employer may not fire them without first providing reasonable opportunities for rehabilitation or alternative work.
When to ask for accommodations?
It is perfectly acceptable to ask for workplace accommodations at any point in the application process if you’re aware of specific needs you have in order to do a job to the best of your ability or to navigate the workplace. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is illegal for an employer or potential employer to discriminate against you because of a disability or your resulting needs. So you don’t need to worry about asking for accommodations at any point in the hiring process.
Sometimes, you might not be aware of a barrier in the workplace that keeps you from doing your job until you begin. Or you may become after working at your job for some time that your duties have changed. The best practice when asking for accommodations is to ask as soon as you realize that there is some kind of potential workplace barrier. Perhaps you need parking accommodations, or structural changes in the employee lunchroom to reach the counter. It’s a good idea to bring these up as soon as you can to give your employer the necessary time to adjust.
How do I ask?
You should ask as soon as you anticipate your disability might cause difficulty in the job.
Though you don’t technically have to make your request in writing, it’s a good idea to leave a “paper trail” through a written document or email. You can certainly have an in-person conversation first, and then follow up in writing.
Address the human resources representative if your organization has one. Otherwise, go straight to your supervisor. You can be as detailed or as private as you choose. The EEOC only requires you to say you need an adjustment based on a medical condition. It’s important to note that according to the ADA fine print, the employer isn’t legally obligated to accommodate you unless you say you have a disability.
You might need to back up your request with medical records. Employers need to keep these records confidential and private, according to the Rehabilitation Act, but they have a right to request them.
In your written statement, explain what adjustments you need and why. You don’t have to go into a ton of detail. Cover the basics, be polite but assertive, and make sure to date your request.
If you don’t know exactly what accommodation will help, simply state the problem—you’re having trouble accessing a resource, performing certain tasks, or keeping certain hours. You’re hoping for an adjustment to your work environment. You can also list various options you think might help. Once your employer gets a sense of the obstacle, they may come up with a solution themselves.
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Tips for asking for accommodation
LOOK FOR AND ASK FOR HELP
You might be surprised what vocational guidance services and other specialized helpful services and resources are out there, many of which can be accessed with no cost to you. I had no idea until I asked a friend who works in disability services.
To begin, I suggest doing an online search for services near you. Examples of what to search might include:
- [Your state and/or city] disability resources
- Opportunities for [Your state]ians with Disabilities
- Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation
- Vocational Resource Center
- Disabilities Resource Center
Talk to the right people: You can disclose the information to whomever you feel most comfortable giving it to. Some employees aren’t comfortable with their direct supervisors knowing about their medical condition or diagnosis, so we advise disclosing this information to the human resources (HR) department. Someone there would be chosen to verify that you do have a disability under the ADA. This confidential information is then stored in a separate locked file that other employees won’t have access to. HR then moves forward with the accommodation process where your supervisor may be involved in providing the accommodations.
You can find out precisely how the accommodation process works by checking your employer’s handbook or policies. HR should be able to advise you on the details.
DON’T COMPARE DISABILITIES OR NEEDS
There is a lot of internalized ableism that many of us have to work against, especially those of us with “invisible” disabilities and illnesses. You do not exist on some imagined hierarchy of disabilities. You are you, and your needs are your needs. Even if a resource centre determines you don’t qualify for their particular services, that doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for accommodations.
Learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and what the laws are regarding accommodations. Look up some examples of accommodations such as: having several small breaks throughout the day instead of one longer one, downloading screen reader software on work computers, installing an accessible toilet on your floor, working only nights, having a consistent schedule whenever possible, etc.
Would accommodations like these make you more productive at work? Would they mean the difference between an accessible or non-accessible working environment? Would they better your mental, physical, emotional and/or overall health? Then it’s worth researching and asking for accommodations.
REFRAME NEGATIVES AS POSITIVES
One thing that struck me most about my meeting with my Vocational Resource Center counsellor was her perspective. I had prepared a list of both my concerns about asking for accommodations and how I thought they would benefit me in the workplace.
She read over my concerns and then shocked me by flipping them all into positives. For example, my fear that employers “won’t count on me” when they learn I am disabled, she turned into “You want to be counted on.”
She noted that my honesty would most likely be appreciated and that my employers will probably value my communication. She said, “Employers want people who will show up on time and do a good job. By going to the effort to meet with me and think through requests, you are showing that you want to do the best that you can.”
This, of course, will not always be the case with every single employer. Still, it certainly puts things into a more positive perspective for me as an employee and showed me that a good employer would see asking for reasonable accommodations as an act of a passionate employee who wants to do their best.
KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
Asking for accommodations can feel like a huge deal and a burden that you are imposing on an employer, but I encourage you to examine and challenge that idea. The requests may seem huge to you as that could quite possibly be the difference between keeping or securing a job and not, but to the employer, it may not be a huge ask. They are a huge deal to you. That doesn’t mean they are a huge deal to others.
If thinking from this perspective doesn’t make you feel better about, for example, asking for an accessible toilet to be installed, consider that by asking for that accommodation, you are providing accessibility for any other or future disabled staff members or customers who come to your place of employment.
Also consider that, while this may be your first time asking for accommodations, it is very unlikely the first time your employer has been asked for one. What is a possibly nerve-wracking experience for you will not be for them.
BE READY TO COMMUNICATE AND COMPROMISE
Accommodation requests do have to be “reasonable.” For example, while wearing noise-cancelling headphones at work would help me a lot, I work in customer service and speak directly with members so that it wouldn’t be practical. A compromise, however, was asking for occasional sensory breaks where I step into the back office and wear my headphones for a few minutes.
Be ready to meet employers somewhere in the middle with some requests, but also try to arm yourself with knowledge about what your rights are. Consider seeking help from one or more of the services mentioned above who can help you formulate and ask for the accommodations and act as a backup when needed.
What happens next?
Employers should respond as soon as possible. If you haven’t heard back for a few days, it’s okay to check in politely. An organization might also provide an “interim accommodation” while preparing for a permanent solution.
What if your employer denies your request? First, see if you can reach a compromise. They may not be able to make the exact adjustment you ask for, but they might offer other options that let you perform the job. If their alternative doesn’t work for you, respectfully explain why—then be prepared for some brainstorming as you figure out what works for everyone. Once you’ve settled on a plan, follow up with written documentation of your conversation and the terms you agreed to.
There’s one caveat to the ADA: if the adjustment would bring your employer “undue hardship” or significant difficulty, they’re not required to make it. Undue hardship is difficult to prove, but if your employer won’t make adjustments or come up with an alternate plan, you might still be able to find a workable solution.
It may be worthwhile to have another conversation, so both of you can clarify your expectations. You can bring in a trustworthy third party or go up the “chain of command.” This is the time to make your request extremely specific if you haven’t yet. Mention the ADA and the legal requirement for reasonable accommodation, and add any medical details you’re comfortable sharing.
If nothing changes, you can consult a disability discrimination attorney or file an employment discrimination complaint with the EEOC. Of course, you don’t have to proceed with either of these options, but they are available, and they may result in positive change. Additionally, consider whether you’re ready to bring your talents to a more flexible and cooperative organization.
The process of requesting reasonable accommodation can be tough, but it’s manageable. You deserve to be able to perform your job without unnecessary difficulty—and more often than not, your employer will want to help.
How far does the duty to accommodate go?
The duty to accommodate is not unlimited. The limit to the duty to accommodate is called “undue hardship.” An employer, landlord or service provider is not required to accommodate a person’s needs beyond the point at which the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” to the business or operation.
What does “undue hardship” mean?
The duty to accommodate under the Code places an onus on the person responsible for accommodation, for example, the employer, to find a way to accommodate the special needs of the affected employee. The employer must either:
Take all measures that can be taken without causing undue hardship to the business
Demonstrate that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s needs without undue hardship to the business
This means that accommodation must be provided unless there would be a very serious hardship on the employer, landlord or service provider. It implies that some amount of hardship is warranted in order to provide accommodation.
For example, the employer, landlord or service provider cannot claim “undue hardship” just because building an accessible washroom would be expensive. It is expected that accommodation may require some amount of financial hardship. To claim that an accommodation expense would impose an undue hardship on a business, the business operator would have to prove that the cost was so extreme it would interfere with running the business.
In addition, factors such as inconvenience, resentment or hostility from other co-workers, the operation of collective agreements or customer “preferences” cannot be considered in the accommodation process.
What factors will be considered if undue hardship is claimed?
If an employer, service provider or landlord is claiming undue hardship, the Tribunal will only consider whether the cost is extreme (and the employer, landlord or service provider must consider outside sources of funding) and/or significant health and safety risks.
See Ontario’s Human Rights Code, in particular sections 11(2) and 17(2). You can get a copy of the Human Rights Code at the government’s e-Laws website.
The bottom line
Be honest and simple about your request for accommodations. Provide as much information as you think is necessary, but don’t feel like you have to share more than necessary.
Are you unsure of what can be considered a reasonable request? Or are you simply looking for advice on what accommodations will be most helpful for you? New Directions for Young Adults is happy to help. We regularly work with young adults who need accommodations and know what kinds of accommodations can be most helpful to you.
We work with our young people to create individualized service plans that advocate for their needs—both in and out of the workplace. Contact us today to see how we can help advocate for your young adult’s workplace needs.