Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace

Over the last 20 years, federal and state laws have made strides in making the workplace better for workers with disabilities. The primary federal law covering disabilities in the workplace is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In addition to prohibiting disability discrimination, ADA requires employers to give reasonable accommodations to qualified employees and qualified job applicants with disabilities. The ADA’s employment regulations are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Qualified workers are workers who can perform most basic, necessary duties required by the job with or without an accommodation. The ADA does not include a list of disabilities. Instead, disabilities that must be accommodated are any “physical or mental impairments” that substantially restrict at least one “major life activity.” These include major bodily functions, such as cell growth or the functioning of the immune system. They may also include diseases in remission or episodic impairments like bipolar disorder.

Even alcoholism may be a disability covered by ADA. Illegal drug use is not considered a disability, but ADA does cover workers who no longer use drugs and have successfully completed rehabilitation or are in a supervised drug rehabilitation program.

What Is A Reasonable Accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation may be required to permit an employee to perform an essential function of a job, to permit an employee to enjoy equal benefits and privileges, and to ensure equal opportunity in the application process. It is illegal for a an employer covered by ADA not to make a reasonable accommodation upon request by an otherwise qualified job applicant or employee with a disability, unless the employer can show that offering the accommodation will impose an undue hardship.

In general, a reasonable accommodation may have an expense attached. Minor expense is not likely to be considered an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations may include providing a ramp for a person in a wheelchair or offering a quiet, distraction-free workspace for a worker with ADD. However, if you need a separate structure to be built, and this would cost your employer six months worth of profits, this might be considered an undue hardship. A court would evaluate the cost of the accommodation, the size and resources of the employer’s business, the business structure, and the effect of the accommodation on the business.

A reasonable accommodation need not involve a physical change. It could be a change in a rule or schedule. For example, a software programmer with arthritis may need more frequent rest breaks than what office policy permits. Or, as another example, a severely diabetic employee may need to keep insulin or a glucose snack in his or her workspace, even if that is against general company policies.

What if there are different possible reasonable accommodations? You will not necessarily get the reasonable accommodation you prefer. Your employer can choose among the reasonable accommodations, as long as the option that is chosen removes the workplace barrier that is at issue for you. The employer can choose the less expensive or easier accommodation, as long as it is equally effective.