What is a reasonable accommodation for a disability?

If your disability hampers your ability to do your job, does your employer have an obligation to make changes that help you?

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which protects employees from being discriminated against because of their disability. This means that an employer cannot discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of his disability when it comes to hiring, firing, promotion, and pay. So, an employer cannot deny job benefits to a disabled employee or create tests that screen out otherwise qualified but disabled individuals.

The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees so that they can perform their jobs.

The ADA covers employers with fifteen or more employees, and, like most federal employment statutes, only applies to employees and not independent contractors. An employee is an individual that the employer has the right to control.

If an employee believes that he has been discriminated against on the basis of his disability, he must show that he has a disability as defined by the ADA, that he was otherwise qualified for the position, and that his employer failed to make a reasonable accommodation.

A person is disabled if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits his ability to perform a major life activity. This definition is construed broadly and, if an employee has a disability or a record of a disability, the ADA requires that his employer make a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability.

An accommodation must enable a qualified, disabled employee to perform the essential function of his job. This may include changes to the job application process, changes to the work environment or job requirements, or changes to employee benefits. For example, a reasonable accommodation is making facilities accessible and usable by disabled employees. Similarly, an employer may restructure the job or make changes to the work schedule to accommodate a disabled employee. Regardless of the accommodation, the goal of the ADA is to require employers to provide an environment where disabled individuals can compete on equal footing with non-disabled individuals. Common accommodations include job restructuring, transfers to other positions or light duty, and leaves of absence

The employee must show that the accommodation is objectively reasonable—that is, reasonable on its face. Then, the employer can only refuse to make the accommodation if it would be an undue hardship on the operation of its business.

The Accommodation Process

Under the ADA, employers must make reasonable accommodations—changes to the employers procedures, facilities, or job requirements—for disabled employees. However, generally, employees must first tell their employers that they need an accommodation. If an employee does not let his employer know of his disability and that he needs an accommodation, then the employer cannot be held liable for not providing one. The accommodation must be one that enables the disabled employee to perform the essential function of his job—an employer does not have to respond to a request for any other accommodation.

Once a request for an accommodation is made, the employer does not necessarily have to accept the employee’s suggestion. The employer only has to make a reasonable accommodation that would allow the employee to perform his job. So, if there are two reasonable accommodations, the employer has the discretion to pick one over the other. Further, because the accommodation only has to be reasonable, it does not have to be the best accommodation.

Instead of requiring an employer to accept whatever accommodation its employee suggests, the ADA envisions an interactive process where both the employer and employee meet to figure an appropriate accommodation. While the employer does not have a duty to get involved in this interactive process, if an employer flatly refuses to make a reasonable accommodation he has violated the ADA. Similarly, if an employee rejects an employer’s reasonable accommodation he will no longer be protected by the ADA with regard to his disability.

An employer can also change the accommodation made if the new accommodation is also reasonable. Say, for example, an employee has an injured knee that gives him trouble going upstairs and his workspace is on the third floor of his employer’s multi-story office building that does not have any elevators. That employee proposes he be moved to an office on the first floor—a reasonable accommodation allowing him to perform his job—and his employer agrees. In the meantime, the employer decides to build an elevator system. Once the elevators are operational, the employer moves the employee back to the third floor. This change still allows the employee to perform his job and the employer has not violated the ADA.