Reasonable Accommodations for Disabled Employees

Every American has the right to seek satisfying, productive work. This includes those with physical and mental disabilities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, most employers in the United States are required to make their application and hiring process, work spaces and daily operations and benefits packages fully accessible to applicants and employees with disabilities, provided this access does not compromise the employer’s productivity or endanger its non-disabled employees. The changes employers must use to make themselves accessible to disabled employees are known as reasonable accommodations. Failure to provide such accommodations may be considered to be a form of discrimination.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

Reasonable accommodations are the alterations a company must make to a job description, working environment or application process to make it fully accessible to individuals with mental and physical disabilities. They can also include changes made to benefits or the training process to accommodate employees with specific needs.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include the following:

  • Allowing an employee with cancer to leave work for doctor’s appointments
  • Allowing a breastfeeding employee time and a private space to use a breast pump and store milk
  • Modifying an ill employee’s work schedule to allow him or her to receive treatment
  • Installing a wheelchair ramp for a mobility disabled employee. This can be extended to modifying the company’s bathrooms and other spaces to be wheelchair accessible and providing the employee with a desk that he or she can easily use 
  • Providing a deaf individual with a sign language interpreter during the interview process and if hired, when necessary
  • Providing training materials in Braille or a reader for a blind employee
  • Allowing an employee who cannot stand for long periods of time due to nerve damage, pregnancy or an injury to use a step stool or chair during job activities that normally require employees to stand
  • Reallocating non-essential job tasks that a disabled individual cannot do to other employees
  • Allowing an employee with diabetes to take short breaks to eat or take insulin

In some cases, individuals with specific needs related to their religious faith may also be granted reasonable accommodations. An example of this type of accommodation would be allowing a Muslim employee to wear her head covering with her uniform.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was created to protect individuals with physical and mental disabilities against discrimination in employment, governmental activities, transportation, communications and public accommodation. It was amended in 2008 to include impairments that were not addressed in the Act’s original language.

The ADA’s protections apply to recruitment, tenure, leave, advertising, benefits and the layoff of employees.

Which Employers Must Provide Reasonable Accommodations?

Employees with fewer than 15 employees are not held to the employment requirements included in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Otherwise, its requirements apply to all private employers, labor unions, staffing agencies and state and local government employers.

Undue Hardship for the Employer

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees as long as those accommodations do not pose an undue hardship to the company. An undue hardship is defined as any accommodation that is too expensive or too difficult for the company to reasonably provide or any accommodation that creates an unnecessary hazard for other employees.

An example of undue hardship is if an employee requests to have some of his job tasks reassigned to other employees because of his disability and these tasks make it impossible for the other employees to perform their own tasks. By overloading his colleague’s work schedules, the employee in this example has created an undue hardship for his employer and may be denied his request for accommodation.

In many cases, the employer must attempt to find a way to provide the employee with his or her requested accommodation. If you have received an accommodation for your disability from a previous employer, discuss it with your current employer as an example of how they can accommodate your needs.

If You Are Denied an Accommodation by Your Employer

Speak with your company’s Human Resources department to discuss the denial. In many cases, your issue can be resolved simply by communicating it to Human Resources. If you are part of a union, consider bringing it up to your union representative as well. Document your interactions with Human Resources, your union representative and your supervisor regarding your request for disability accommodation and its denial.

If your issue is not resolved by Human Resources, you might have grounds for a discrimination claim. Contact an experienced employment attorney to discuss your disability, your accommodation request and your employer’s denial of the request. If possible, document the reason your employer gave for denying your request for an accommodation. Your attorney will examine your experience and determine whether or not you have a valid discrimination claim. If so, he or she may file a Charge of Discrimination against your employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency tasked with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws. You may not file a discrimination lawsuit against your employer until you have filed this type of charge.

After filing your Charge of Discrimination, your case may either go to mediation to attempt resolution or be passed on to an investigator, who will examine it and determine if any violation of the law occurred. If a violation has occurred, the EEOC will attempt to reach a settlement with your employer. If not, you will be able to pursue a lawsuit against your company. Your attorney will be able to advise you regarding these options as they come up.