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About Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace

Summary: Rules that stem from Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and from the Rehabilitation Act, concern disability in the workplace. These rules protect the rights of job applicants and employees. Many of these rules describe changes that an employer makes with regard to a disability. These changes are called accommodations.

Under Title I of the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act, employers must provide reasonable accommodation to employees and applicants who are qualified, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. Employers are required to accommodate only known disabilities. 

For a disability to be known, the employee or applicant must disclose their disability to the employer and let them know what they need in order to complete the essential functions of the job.

Reasonable Accommodation Basics

An important aspect of Title I of the ADA is the idea of a reasonable accommodation.

An accommodation is a change in the way that an employee works, or in the equipment supplied to an employee. The purpose of this change is to make it so the employee can do their work. For example, a person with a visual impairment might require assistive software in order to “read” email efficiently, or a person with certain medical requirements might need a modified break schedule.

The word “reasonable” in reasonable accommodation means there is a limit to what an employer must do to provide an accommodation. For example, an employer does not have to reduce uniformly applied production standards. An employer can always choose to offer any accommodation it wishes, including those that are not considered reasonable.

Another important aspect of Title I is the idea of an essential function. An essential function is one that is central to a person’s job. For example, an essential function of being a school bus driver is driving a bus. The point of a reasonable accommodation is to make it possible for an employee with a disability to carry out one or more essential functions of their job. Job functions that are not essential are called marginal functions.

The EEOC defines three categories of accommodations:[1]

  • Modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for a position they have applied to
  • Modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or the way that work is usually done, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job
  • Modifications or adjustments that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

Reasonable Accommodations for Job Applicants

For a job applicant with a disability, for a reasonable accommodation to take place during the pre-offer process, the job applicant must make their needs known. There are many types of reasonable accommodations, and the EEOC offers these examples:

What if a test is part of an application or interview? Employers are required to allow extra time or an alternative format, if needed.

Employers do not have to provide accommodations that would cause an undue hardship, but they should look for an alternative accommodation that is both reasonable and effective for the applicant. 

Reasonable Accommodations for Employees

Initial requests for accommodation do not need to be in writing. They can be made using plain language. Usually, they take the form of “because of X (medical condition or disability), I’m having trouble with Y (job duty).”

Employers can ask the person who requested an accommodation to follow up with a form to make the request more formal.

If the company does not have a form, it is good practice to create a written record of the request. For example, the employee’s manager could send a written document, such as an email message, to the employee, confirming the request. If the manager does not do this, the employee could send an email in order to create a written record of the request.

After a request is made, the employer must initiate an interactive accommodation process with the applicant or employee. Both the employer and the employee must be active participants in this process. The employee must respond to employer requests for documentation or more information about their need for accommodation. The employer must act to accommodate the employee in a timely manner, and may request medical documentation of disability related to the request when the need is not obvious.

Both the employer and the employee should document their actions during the accommodation process. If a complaint is filed for failure to accommodate, a party who does not keep good records is more likely to lose their argument.

Who Decides What Accommodation Is Put into Place?

Although the employee should be consulted on an effective accommodation, the employer ultimately chooses what is put into place. The accommodation must be effective in supporting the employee to complete the essential functions of their job.

More Examples of Reasonable Accommodations

Reasonable accommodation comes in many forms. They vary according to the position the employee holds and the functional limitation they experience because of the disability or medical condition. Accommodations might include:

What Is Not Reasonable?

Several types of accommodations are rarely found to be reasonable. These include:

Remember that an employer pays for and ultimately decides which accommodation will be put into place. But this decision is made after interacting with the employee to get their take on what is needed. The accommodation the employer puts into place must also be effective.

These Rules Are Helpful

Whether a person with a disability is a job applicant, has just been offered a job, or is an employee, that person has certain rights. The rules surrounding these rights help job applicants, employees, and managers understand what to do when something needs to be changed so a job applicant can be fairly considered for a position or so an employee can do their job successfully. For an employer, providing a reasonable accommodation is usually much more effective and affordable than not including a person with a disability in their applicant pool or workforce.

[ Read: Accommodations Playbook, Small Business at Work Toolkit ]

 

[1] US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (2002). General principles. In Enforcement guidance: Reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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