You or someone you know may have difficulty finding the right way to approach an employer if you or someone you know requires special accommodations to meet the job’s requirements. If you have a disability that could affect your ability to do your job, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself or appear “too difficult.”
The best way to ask for reasonable accommodations may be difficult to understand, even if it doesn’t feel intimidating. We’ve put together a list of resources that can help you get ready to make a reasonable accommodation request at work.
Despite the fact that many people find the idea of disclosing a disability difficult, it is possible to do so in a simple and straightforward manner that can help you secure workplace accommodations that will allow you to perform at your best. There is no time limit for requesting an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even so, we urge you to tell your employer about your disability and ask for reasonable accommodations as soon as you notice any difficulties at work, even if they are only minor. A direct and effective tool for handling issues that arise and getting back on track to completing work assignments or starting a new job with the tools you need is open communication during disclosure and the accommodation process. Here are some pointers to assist you once you’re ready.
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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?
In some cases, organisations are not legally obligated to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you work for (or are applying to) a private employer with 15 or more employees, a government employer, or a labour organisation, you are covered by federal ADA protection. Your job may not fall into any of these categories, but if it does, you should still ask for an accommodation if you believe it will help you perform your duties. Even if they aren’t legally required to, many employers are willing to work with you to find a solution.
The term “disability” is more difficult to pin down, but it covers a wide range of conditions. According to the EEOC, a disability is “an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” It doesn’t have to be a long-term, physical or visible impairment. For example, if your ability to function is severely hampered by a mental health condition, it may be considered a disability.
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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?
As soon as you suspect that your disability will make it difficult for you to perform your job duties, you should enquire.
However, while it isn’t required, it’s best to leave a “paper trail” by writing or emailing your request. It’s fine to start with a face-to-face meeting and then follow up with a letter.
If your company has a human resources representative, use that person’s name. If this is not the case, contact your manager immediately. Is there anything you don’t want to share with the world? If you have a medical condition, the EEOC only requires that you explain why you need an adjustment. In the ADA’s fine print, employers are not legally required to accommodate you unless you identify yourself as having a disability. This is important to keep in mind.
You may be required to provide medical documentation to support your request. According to the Rehabilitation Act, employers must keep these records private and confidential, but they have the right to request them.
Explain why you need to make changes in your written statement. There’s no need to go into great detail. Include the essentials, be courteous but firm, and date your request.
Simply state the problem—you can’t get to a resource or perform certain tasks or keep certain hours—if you don’t know exactly what accommodation will help. You’re hoping for a change in the working environment for you. You can also make a short list of potential solutions. It is possible that your employer will come up with a solution to the problem once they have a better understanding of it.
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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 get back to employees as quickly as they can. After a few days of no response, it’s acceptable to enquire politely if you haven’t heard back. An “interim accommodation” may also be offered by an organisation while it works to find a long-term solution.
The worst-case scenario is that your employer refuses to accommodate your request. Find out if you can come to an agreement. In the event that they are unable to provide you with the specific modification you request, they may suggest an alternative that still allows you to complete the task. Respectfully explain why you don’t agree with their solution, and then work together to come up with a solution that works for everyone. Having agreed to a plan, write down the details of your conversation and the terms that were agreed upon.
The only exception to the ADA is if making the change would place a “undue burden” on your employer, which is defined as “significant difficulty.” Even if proving an undue hardship is difficult, you may be able to come up with a workable solution if your employer refuses to make adjustments or come up with an alternative plan.
It might be beneficial to have another discussion so that both of your expectations are crystal clear. A trusted third party or the “chain of command” can help. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to make your request as specific as possible. Mention the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the legal requirement for a reasonable accommodation, as well as any medical information you feel comfortable disclosing.
The EEOC or a disability discrimination attorney may be able to help you if nothing else works out. Obviously, you don’t have to go through with either of these options, but if you do, you may see positive results. In addition, consider whether you’re ready to bring your skills to a more flexible and cooperative company.
A reasonable accommodation request can be difficult, but it is doable. With your employer’s help, you should have no problem doing your job without undue difficulty.
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?
It is the employer’s responsibility to find a way to accommodate the affected employee’s special needs in accordance with the Code’s duty to accommodate. Either the employer must:
Do everything you can to avoid putting the company in a difficult position.
Show that it is unable to meet the reasonable needs of the employee without putting the company at risk
Accommodation must be provided unless the employer, landlord, or service provider suffers a significant hardship as a result. Providing accommodation necessitates some degree of hardship.
If constructing an accessible restroom is expensive, the employer, landlord, or service provider cannot claim “undue hardship.” Accommodation is expected to necessitate some financial hardship. It is necessary for a business owner to demonstrate that the cost of lodging would cause an undue hardship if it were to be incurred by the company.
In addition, the accommodation process cannot take into account factors such as the inconvenience, resentment, or hostility of other coworkers, the operation of collective agreements, or “preferences” of customers.
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.