HR professionals play a crucial role in ensuring compliance with legal requirements for accommodating individuals with disabilities to reduce legal risks and foster an inclusive work environment where individuals with disabilities can thrive and contribute. Understanding the requirements and processes surrounding reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities is essential for complying with legal requirements and securing equal opportunities for all employees.

This how-to guide aims to equip employers and HR professionals with an understanding of the reasonable accommodation process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It explores the definition of reasonable accommodations, an employer’s legal obligations under the law, the process for determining accommodations and best practices for implementing accommodations effectively. This guide can help provide HR professionals and their organizations with the knowledge and tools necessary to confidently navigate the complexities of reasonable accommodations under the ADA. 

In many situations, employees may be entitled to protections under other federal laws, state and local disabilities laws, and collective bargaining agreements. Due to the complexities of complying with the reasonable accommodation process, employers are encouraged to consult with local legal counsel if they have any specific questions or concerns.

Overview of the ADA

The ADA is a landmark legislation enacted to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities
and prohibit discrimination in various areas, including employment. Under the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees must reasonably accommodate employees and applicants with disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship on the organization.

This law applies to all employment practices, including:
• Recruitment
• Compensation
• Hiring
• Firing
• Job assignments
• Training
• Leave
• Benefits

Generally, an employer must determine whether an accommodation may be made any time an employee or applicant who is otherwise qualified for a position requests an adjustment or change to the workplace for a reason related to a medical condition. By providing reasonable accommodations, employers can eliminate barriers and provide individuals with disabilities the opportunity to succeed in their roles.

Not every individual with a medical condition is protected by the ADA. To be protected, a person must be qualified for the job and have a disability defined by the law. Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

The ADA protects individuals who:
• Have a record of substantially limiting physical or mental impairment, even if they do not
currently have a disability
• Are regarded as having a substantially limiting impairment, even if they do not

Major life activities include:
• Caring for oneself
• Performing manual tasks
• Seeing
• Hearing
• Eating
• Sleeping
• Walking
• Standing
• Lifting
• Bending
• Speaking
• Breathing
• Learning
• Reading
• Concentrating
• Thinking
• Communicating
• Working

A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions.

A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. Essential functions are the basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation. Factors to consider in determining if a function is essential include:

• The determination of whether the reason the position exists is to perform that function
• The number of other employees available to perform the function (or among whom the performance of that function can be distributed)
• The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function

How to Reasonably Accommodate Employees

A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. A reasonable accommodation may include but is not limited to:

Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by person with disabilities
• Job restructuring, modifying work schedules or reassigning to a vacant position
• Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices; adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies; and providing qualified readers or interpreters 

An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation for the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it would not impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Accommodations vary depending on the needs of the individual applicant or employee. Not all people with disabilities (or even all people with the same disability) will require the same accommodation.

Step 1: Receiving an Accommodation Request

For covered employers, their obligation to provide individuals with reasonable accommodations typically begins with a request from an applicant or employee for an accommodation. An employer generally does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation unless an individual with a disability has asked for one. However, if an employer becomes aware of an individual’s need for an accommodation or believes that a medical condition is causing a performance or conduct problem, they may ask the employee how to solve the problem and if the employee needs a reasonable accommodation.

A request for accommodation does not have to come directly from an applicant or employee, nor does it have to be in writing or include any specific language or reference to the ADA. Moreover, an individual does not have to identify any specific accommodation in a request.

An ADA accommodation request must describe problems posed by a workplace barrier that impedes an individual from the following:

• Participating in the job application process
• Performing the essential functions of a job
• Enjoying benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by employees without
disabilities.

A workplace barrier may be a physical obstacle (such as an inaccessible facility or piece of equipment) or a procedure or rule (such as a rule concerning when work is performed, when breaks are taken, or how essential or marginal functions are performed).

Examples of requests that would trigger an employer's ADA responsibilities include: 

• " I'm having trouble reaching tools because of my shoulder injury."
• " I need time off because my pain prevents me from working."
• " My wheelchair does not fit under the desk in my new office."

Examples of requests that would not trigger an employer's ADA responsibilities include:

• " I would like a new chair because my present one is uncomfortable."
• " I have a mental disorder that causes me to behave erratically at work." 

These examples would not trigger an employer’s responsibilities under the ADA because they have no link to a medical condition (e.g., request for a new chair due to comfort reasons) or there’s no change to a workplace barrier identified in the request (e.g., simply notifying an employer of erratic behavior at work).

Imposing an Undue Hardship

An employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it imposes an undue hardship.

An undue hardship is an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer’s size, financial resources and the nature and structure of its operation.

Undue hardship must be based on an individualized assessment (not generalized conclusions) of current circumstances showing that an accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expenses. However, an employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation, nor is an employer obligated to provide personal use items such as glasses or hearing aids.

Engaging in the Interactive Process

A request for a reasonable accommodation is the first step in an informal, interactive process between the individual and the employer to determine a suitable accommodation. An accommodation request triggers an employer’s responsibility to work with the requesting individual to determine whether an accommodation may be made without causing undue hardship.

Step 2: Selecting an Accommodation

Once a reasonable accommodation is requested, the employer and the individual should do the following:

• Discuss the individual’s needs.
• Identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation.

During this process, the employer may ask the individual relevant questions that will enable them to make an informed decision about the request. Where more than one accommodation would work, the employer may choose the one that is less costly or easier to provide.

When deciding which accommodation to implement, employers can consider the affected employee’s preference but are not required to do so. An employee is entitled to a reasonable and effective accommodation—not necessarily the accommodation of their choice.

Additionally, the ADA requires employers to respond “expeditiously” once they’ve received an
accommodation request. Therefore, employers should promptly implement an accommodation or at least promptly begin the interactive process with an individual who requests an accommodation. Unnecessary delays can result in costly ADA violations.

Step 3: Determining the Reasonableness of an Accommodation

Employers and employees should interactively identify an effective accommodation (one that will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job) that is reasonable under the circumstances.

Often, even before conducting any undue hardship analysis, an employer may determine that certain requested accommodations are not reasonable and, therefore, not required. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an accommodation is reasonable if it:

• Seems reasonable on its face (i.e., ordinary in most cases)
• Appears to be feasible or plausible

Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

• Job restructuring
• Providing leave
• Acquiring or modifying equipment
• Making existing facilities accessible
• Reassigning an individual to a vacant position

There are generally three categories of reasonable accommodations:

1. Modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position desired.
2. Modifications or adjustments to the work environment or the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed that enable a qualified individual with disabiities to perform the essential functions of that position.
3.  Modifications or adjustments that enable a covered employer's employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by other similarly situated employees without disabilities.

Employers are not required to eliminate an essential function or lower performance standards when accommodating an individual.

Step 4: Requesting Documentation

Employers may reach out to individuals for documentation related to their disability when it is not obvious. In other words, employers are entitled to know that the employee has a covered disability. However, there are some situations when an employer cannot ask for documentation.

Specifically, an employer cannot ask for documentation when:

•   Both the disability and need for accommodation are obvious.
• The individual has provided sufficient information to corroborate their disability and reasonable accommodation needs.

If it is necessary to speak with the requesting individual’s health care provider, an employer should first obtain a written medical release or permission from the individual. Their health care provider may not disclose information or answer questions related to the disability without expressed permission from the individual.

Additionally, an employer must keep confidential any medical information learned about an applicant or employee. An employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation is generally considered medical information and must be kept in a separate file, not as part of the individual’s personnel file.

Step 5: Implementing the Accommodation

Implementing an accommodation is one of the most critical steps in the interactive ADA process. Employers should carefully review all aspects of implementing the accommodation  smoothly. This might include:

• Installing new equipment
• Training employees
• Coordinating outside services
• Adjusting schedules

Not considering these aspects might undermine the effort to make the accommodation and may force an employer to try other options prematurely.

Step 6: Monitoring the Accommodation

Under the ADA, an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations is ongoing. Therefore, monitoring the accommodation after it’s essential is an important aspect of the process. This can ensure that the accommodation remains effective days, weeks or even years after it was implemented. Some accommodations may lose their effectiveness and will require the employer to find another solution.

Employers may also need to reevaluate the accommodation due to certain situations, including the following, because they could trigger undue hardship:

• Downsizing
• Restructuring
• Lost funding

Summary

The ADA is intended to prevent discrimination toward qualified individuals with disabilities. However, responding to requests for accommodations can often be difficult and presents employers with many challenges.

By understanding the ADA's accommodation requirements and implementing accommodations effectively, employers and HR professionals can ensure their organizations promote inclusive and equal work environments for all employees and avoid potential legal pitfalls. Following the steps presented in this guide can help employers engage in a thoughtful dialogue with applicants and employees to develop reasonable accommodations in a timely and professional manner.