This article explains the basics of a "reasonable accommodation," which is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). For more information about the ADA, see Disability Discrimination in the Workplace: An Overview of the ADA.
A reasonable accommodation is anything that an employer can do to help a disabled employee perform the essential functions of his or her job. Sounds simple enough, right? However, the ADA and courts have created certain obligations that the employee must fulfill in order to seek an accommodation. An experienced employment attorney can help you make sure that you and your employer are meeting all necessary requirements under the law.
An accommodation, for ADA purposes, can include almost anything, from a change in an employee’s hours to new equipment, such as ergonomically-engineered office furniture. For example, an employee on medication that makes it difficult to function in the early morning may request a later arrival time. Or, an employee with vision impairment may request voice-activated software for his work computer.
Even if a disabled employee has a perfect solution to his or her work limitations, the employer does not necessarily have to agree to it. If the accommodation you need would impose an “undue hardship” on your employer, your employer is not required to provide it. For example, if the accommodation you request would cause severe financial hardship, your employer may not have to comply.
But, an employer cannot just claim undue hardship because it does not want to provide your requested accommodation. An employment lawyer can assess whether or not an employer’s claim of undue hardship is legitimate.
Under the ADA, you have to request accommodation of your disability—it's not up to the employer to offer it. Although you don’t have to use any particular words to request accommodation (not even “accommodation”) or mention the ADA, you do have to give the employer enough information about what you need so that they can decide if accommodation is possible.
Even though the law does not require that you use particular language to request accommodation nor that you put it in writing, a written request is a good idea. A written request is helpful because it's creates a record of your request that you and/or your employer can refer to when you are discussing your accommodation. And, it could be evidence of your request if there is a later dispute between you and your employer about your accommodation. An employment lawyer can help you draft a written request that meets all requirements under the ADA.
After you make your request for reasonable accommodation, your employer’s obligations kick in. At that point, your employer has to talk to you to work out whether and how it can provide an accommodation. This is called the "interactive process," which is required by law. During this process, you and your employer discuss options for accommodating your disability so that you can perform your job’s essential functions.
The law also requires that the process be flexible, meaning that your employer does not have to offer exactly what you have requested, so long as it offers an accommodation that enables you to do your job. During the interactive process, for example, an employee may request a particular work schedule that the employer cannot agree to. The employer in turn may offer a slightly different work schedule that still makes it so the employee can perform her essential functions.
It is very helpful for you to have an attorney to advise you during this back and forth to make sure that you're protecting your rights and that your employer is engaging in the process in good faith.
Once you and your employer have come to an agreement on the accommodation, it is a good idea to put the agreement in writing for the same reasons you ought to put your request in writing. An attorney can prepare that written agreement for you.
If you and your employer cannot agree to any accommodation, you will definitely want to talk to an employment attorney about your options, which may include filing a lawsuit against your employer for disability discrimination.