What Are Reasonable Accommodations, and Why Do They Matter?

Posted on Categories Blog What Are Reasonable Accommodations, and Why Do They Matter? Click To Tweet

Reasonable accommodations are any changes that allow a person with a disability to apply for and perform the essential functions of a job.  Accommodations are a challenging subject for all involved but are necessary for regulatory compliance. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990 and is a signature accomplishment of the disability rights movement. ADA prohibits discrimination against employees (and job applicants) who have physical or mental impairments that substantially limit “major life activities.” Major life activities include walking, sitting, reading, seeing, and communicating.

What are reasonable accommodations?

While the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) does not enforce the ADA, it does offer publications and other technical assistance on the basic requirements of the law. The DOL also enforces the covered employers’ obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified job applicants and employees with disabilities. The goal of the ADA is for every person to have the right to participate in all aspects of society, including employment.

A modification that would not pose an undue hardship to the employer is considered a “reasonable accommodation,” and includes assistance or changes to a position or workplace that will allow an employee to do their job despite a disability.  Examples include making facilities readily accessible to individuals with disabilities; job restructuring; part time/modified work schedules; reassignment/transfer; acquisition or modification of equipment; devices training; policies; and provision of interpreters or readers.  There is no single exhaustive list of reasonable accommodations, and it is up to employee and employer to determine the best accommodation for all involved.

The ADA does not apply to private employers with fewer than 15 employees.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces against job discrimination by all employers, including State and local government employers, with 15 or more employees after July 26, 1994.  Note:  all Federal employees and applicants are covered by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, instead of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the protections are mostly the same.

ADA applies to all aspects of employment, including the job postings, employment application, interviews, assessment, and post-offer medical examinations.  Many of the ADA rules that apply to employees also apply to applicants and new hires.  Employers should include a statement in job postings that they do not discriminate based on disability.  Recruiting or screening that excludes potential applicants with disabilities may be an ADA violation.  Employers have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for applicants with disabilities to apply for jobs.

Before an offer is made, employers cannot ask disability-related questions. If an applicant requests an accommodation for a job interview, employers must reasonably comply so that the applicant is considered on an equal basis with other applicants.  If the applicant has an obvious disability or has voluntarily disclosed a disability, the interviewer may ask him or her how he or she will perform the functions of the job.

It’s okay to ask what type of reasonable accommodation will be needed at this point.  Make full use of the reasonable accommodation process immediately after hiring employees with a disability. The goal for both the employer and employee is to achieve immediate productivity, as you would with any employee.

Please note the following for the reasonable accommodation process:

  • Take any request for reasonable accommodation seriously and act on it promptly.
  • Establish an interactive process. The supervisor and employee should work together to find an accommodation that balances the needs of both the employee and the organization.
  • Be open-minded. Providing accommodation promptly and fairly prevents compliance issues.
  • Use internal and external resources. Consult with an HR expert on policy and overall guidance as well as the EEOC.
  • Keep medical and personal information confidential.
  • Document everything. Put requests and responses in writing. Create written records for the entire process.

There are legal consequences for employers’ actions (or lack thereof) at every step of this process: failure to respond or to decide on an accommodation request, failure to implement a decision, or improper denial of accommodation.  All the above could expose your organization to legal liability.

The reasonable accommodation process should be prompt, fair and efficient. Enabling employees with disabilities to be productive team members benefits everyone.  Evaluate the requests quickly and fairly and ensure that all employees have the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.  Create a culture that values and relies upon the contributions of all employees – with or without disabilities.

Staff One HR works with clients to not only ensure compliance, but improve company culture and employee engagement.