If you have a disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you might need a reasonable accommodation to do your job. Most employers are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees and job applicants. However, employers aren’t required to guess that you have a disability or what type of accommodation might be useful. You must take the first step by requesting an accommodation—and the best way to do so is by writing a reasonable accommodation letter. (For an overview, see our article on disability discrimination under the ADA.)
A reasonable accommodation is assistance or a change in the job or workplace that will enable an employee with a disability to perform the position’s essential functions. An accommodation might be structural, such as widening a hallway to accommodate a wheelchair or adjusting the lighting in an employee’s workspace. It might be technological, such as providing voice-activated software. Some accommodations involve changing workplace rules, including relaxing uniform requirements or allowing more flexible work schedules.
Employers must also provide reasonable accommodations to help a prospective employee apply for the job. For example, an applicant with carpal tunnel syndrome might need voice-activated software to take a keyboarding test; an applicant who is deaf might need a sign language interpreter for an interview; an applicant who is visually impaired might need an alternative format (such as Braille or audio) for a written test; or an applicant who uses a wheelchair might need an accessible interview room.
The duty to accommodate during the application process and the duty to accommodate during the employment relationship are two separate obligations, and each must be considered on its own. In other words, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to allow someone to apply for the position, even if it believes it would not be able to provide an accommodation for the employee to actually perform the job.
It is the applicant’s or employee’s responsibility to request a reasonable accommodation initially. The employer doesn’t have to anticipate this need. This makes sense, as one of the purposes of the ADA was to eliminate paternalism and biased assumptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot accomplish. Rather than requiring employers to make presumptions about an employee’s disability and potential accommodations, the ADA requires the employee to come forward and request assistance.
Employees and applicants do not have to request an accommodation in writing, nor do they have to use any particular words. (For example, they don’t have to mention the ADA or use the words “reasonable accommodation.”) This rule is intended to protect people who may not be aware of their legal rights.
Even though you aren’t legally required to formalize your request, however, it’s a very good idea to do so. Your reasonable accommodation request puts the employer on notice and sets the accommodation process in motion. A written request will ensure that your employer takes you seriously and has sufficient information to research accommodation options. It will also give you proof, should you need it in a later dispute, that you requested an accommodation.
In your reasonable accommodation letter, you should provide all the information your employer will need to begin the accommodation process, including what your disability is, how it affects you, which aspects of your job might require modification, and proposed accommodations. Here’s a checklist of facts to include:
Here's an example of a reasonable accommodation leter, written by an employee who has depression and needs some scheduling changes.
March 13, 2018
To: Bob Jones, HR Director
From: Sarah Smith, Customer Service Representative
Dear Mr. Jones,
I am a customer service representative in the Omaha call center. I work 40 hours a week, including four shifts in the office and one at home.
I was recently diagnosed with major depression. As a person with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I am requesting reasonable accommodation to allow me to perform my job duties. I am currently taking medication for my disability that makes me groggy and slow to get started in the morning. I would like to change my work schedule so that I start work at 10 a.m. rather than 8:30 a.m., to make sure I don’t miss any work and can work efficiently throughout my shift. I will also need two hours off every week to meet with my psychiatrist.
Please let me know if you need medical documentation of my disability and need for accommodation. I look forward to meeting with you to discuss options for accommodating my disability.
Once your employer receives your request, it is legally obligated to work with you to come up with a reasonable accommodation, if possible. The law describes this obligation as the duty to engage in a “flexible, interactive process.” Your employer doesn’t have to provide the specific accommodation you request, but it must work with you to come up with an effective accommodation. For Sarah Smith, in the example above, the employer might want to move her to a later shift—say, one that starts at noon—instead of moving her start time to 10 a.m. Or, the employer might want her to make up her missed hours by working a sixth day, rather than working later on her scheduled days. Whatever accommodation you and your employer agree on, you should put it in writing, signed and dated by both of you.
An employer need not provide a reasonable accommodation if it would create an undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, considering the cost of the accommodation, the size and financial resources of the business, the structure of the business, and how the accommodation would affect the business.
If you believe you have been unfairly denied a reasonable accommodation, whether because your employer never responded to your letter, your employer provided an accommodation that didn’t solve the problem, or your employer claimed that no accommodation was possible without undue hardship, you should contact an experienced disability discrimination attorney for help.