What Are Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers workers protection from discrimination in the workplace due to disability. Employers with 15 or more employees must abide by the provisions of the act. In addition to prohibiting discrimination based on a protected disability, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations in order to allow employees to be able to do their jobs, and to allow potential employees to apply and interview for positions. But just what is a “reasonable accommodation?” And are employers required to grant all requests for accommodation?
What is a Reasonable Accommodation?
At a very basic level, a reasonable accommodation is a modification to the workplace, or to the job duties, to allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the position despite a disability. Since each situation and employee is unique, accommodations are not standardized based on the job or the disability. Each request should be considered individually and the appropriate accommodation made based on the situation.
An employee requesting an accommodation under the ADA must have any required skills, education, and experience for the position in question, and must be able to perform its essential functions either with or without an accommodation. Some examples of accommodations under the ADA include:
- Job restructuring: a modification of the way the job is performed to allow an employee to still accomplish its essential functions; this may include reassignment of tasks to another worker that the disabled employee is unable to do. (Tasks not related to the position’s essential function.)
- Modified work schedule: to allow the employee to adjust work hours in order to receive therapy, take frequent breaks, or attend medical appointments.
- Assistive technology or modified office equipment: the use of a screen reader and a braille keyboard for a blind employee or an adjustable height desk for someone in wheelchair.
- Reassignment to a different position: if the disabled employee can no longer perform the essential functions of the current job, even with accommodations, reassignment to another position for which they are qualified is an alternative, although employers generally are not required to create a new position for the disabled employee.
Accommodation Request Requirements
An employee may request an accommodation at any time if their disability hampers them from performing the essential functions of their job. Likewise, an applicant may request an accommodation if a disability prevents them from fully participating in the application process. Any request for modification of the workplace is considered a request for reasonable accommodation if the request is related to a worker’s disability. The individual need not refer to the ADA or use the word accommodation in the request. There are no “magic words.” The request for accommodation may be made by a third party on behalf of the employee/applicant.
Responding to Requests
A requirement of the ADA is that employers engage in an interactive discussion regarding the need for and availability of a reasonable accommodation. Failure to do so is in and of itself a violation. Ideally, an employer should have a designated individual, the Disability Program Manager (DPM), who is responsible for responding to ADA requests but that is not always possible. Whether or not an employer has a designated employee to handle reasonable accommodation requests, the following procedures should be followed. When a supervisor receives a request for reasonable accommodation, the employee should be referred to the DPM (or Human Resources). They should discuss the type of accommodation needed and which tasks (if any) the employee is not able to do.
The employee may be asked to submit documentation, signed by an appropriate health professional, which will give more information on the disability and the employee’s limitations. The easiest way to accomplish this is to provide the employee with a copy of his or her job description (which should list all the essential functions of the job) and ask that the employee’s health care provider indicate which functions the employee can and cannot perform and what reasonable accommodations are necessary with respect to any functions the employee cannot perform.
Not all conditions are considered disabilities covered under the ADA and unfortunately, the ADA does not provide a list of covered conditions. The Act defines a person with a disability as someone who has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.” The Jobs Accommodation Network (JAN) has more information on covered disabilities and reasonable accommodations.
Do all Accommodation Requests Have to Be Honored?
If it will cause an undue hardship to the organization, a request for reasonable accommodation does not have to be granted. An accommodation is considered an undue hardship if it will require significant difficulty or expense to implement. You should use caution when declaring an accommodation an undue hardship. Additionally, an employee whose complaint is outside the scope of the ADA (e.g. pyromania, compulsive gambling) would not be eligible for its protection. Conditions such as pregnancy (absent an associated medical condition), injuries, and short-term illnesses are also not considered disabilities under the ADA.
Implementation and Beyond
There is no proscribed procedure that an employer must follow when an accommodation request is made, but we recommend the following best practices:
- Create a formal process that can be followed each time there is a request for accommodation—this will help ensure that the process is handled consistently, is well documented and that employees know what to expect.
- Respond quickly to requests and keep the employee involved at every step. Let them and their health care provider suggest the type of accommodation that will be most helpful. Focus on the employee’s strengths and how they match up with the job’s essential functions, not the disability.
If you need assistance responding to requests for reasonable accommodations and the creation and implementation of an accommodation response policy, consider consulting with an employment attorney. The skilled lawyers at Simon | Paschal PLLC can help.