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ADA: What You Need to Know About Reasonable Accommodations

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of U.S. adults have some type of disability. It’s likely some of them work at your company. Are you confident you’re meeting their needs?

What is an ADA accommodation?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), above all, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. It protects the rights of employees and job seekers with disabilities. This includes employment and hiring activities.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • has a record of such an impairment
  • or is regarded as having such an impairment

Understanding reasonable accommodation

Reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment made by the company to an employee’s work environment, which allows employees to perform their positions’ duties despite having a disability. Because every person with a disability has their own circumstances, each reasonable accommodation is different. Consider these examples:

  • A salesperson is given a stool to relieve fatigue caused by lupus.
  • A writer who struggles with carpal tunnel syndrome is given voice-to-text software to relieve typing difficulties.
  • An accountant who had surgery on her knee and has difficulty walking is relocated to a desk on the ground floor to avoid the stairs.
  • A park ranger is allowed to bring his therapy dog on patrol to assist with his diagnosed depression.
  • A telemarketer is allowed to stand and stretch for five minutes every hour to relieve chronic back pain.

Any reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities must be effective. This means the employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

For example, certain jobs such as food server or in-store cashier require employees to perform the work on-site.

Reasonable accommodations must not cause an undue hardship to the employer. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an undue hardship is an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” What’s considered difficult or costly depends on a number of factors, like an organization’s:

  • size
  • nature
  • structure
  • resources

Thus, undue hardships are determined case by case. They could include changing the building’s physical infrastructure or spending a large amount of money on a new technology.

Once an employee has identified their disability and any doctor recommendations are considered, the company will choose the best way to accommodate the individual within reason. If providing the exact accommodation is impossible, an employer must try to find a reasonable alternative. And if cost is the issue, the individual requesting the accommodation should have the option to help cover the expense.

5 steps to implement reasonable accommodations in the workplace

So what role do leaders play? What about HR business partners? Identifying the disability, engaging the employee and implementing a reasonable accommodation can be broken down into five steps.

STEP ONE: Preparation. Every leader should be familiar with their company’s ADA policy before taking any action. This understanding will help smooth and expedite each subsequent step.

STEP TWO: Observation. Disabilities aren’t always easy to spot (such as hearing loss or mental disabilities), and your employees may not notify their supervisor directly. Sometimes, a disclosure comes in the form of a simple complaint, such as, “This chair really hurts my back!”

Leaders and HR partners should pay attention to these types of comments. If a manager or supervisor notices first, bring HR in as soon as possible.

STEP THREE: Conversation (also called “the interactive process”). Talk with the employee regarding their needs and maintain communication throughout the entire process. This is typically handled by a direct supervisor. HR can provide them with guidance, such as through a script or other resources.

Engaging in the interactive process is a critical step in complying with the ADA. Employers should listen to the employee’s suggestions of possible remedies, but the employer is responsible for choosing an effective and reasonable accommodation. Always handle every case professionally and seriously during this step.

STEP FOUR: Verification. This can occur during the interactive process. When a disability or its limitations are not obvious, the employer may ask the individual for reasonable documentation about the disability and functional limitations. Never assume that the employee isn’t disabled.

Employers may seek to verify the employee’s condition qualifies as a disability under the ADA. This step is best left to your HR partner. The ADA lays out strict guidelines on what can and can’t be requested from an employee regarding a disability, as well as what qualifies as reasonable documentation.

For example, reasonable documentation means the employer can’t request full medical records from the employee. An employer can only require the minimum documentation that states the employee has an ADA-covered disability that requires a reasonable accommodation.

An employer may request the documentation come from an appropriate health care or rehabilitation professional. The employer should specify what types of information it’s seeking regarding:

  • the disability
  • functional limitations
  • the need for reasonable accommodation

Verification is optional, but it’s also a best practice. An employer can simply discuss the nature of the disability with the employee and how it limits them. Reasonable accommodations do not require verification. Whatever an employer does, however, should be consistent for all employees in a similar situation.

STEP FIVE: Implement the reasonable accommodation. Regardless of who your company delegates to determine the reasonable accommodation, it’s typically the responsibility of the employee’s direct supervisor to ensure that the accommodation is available to and used by the employee.

No matter your role in the process, always:

  • understand your company’s policy
  • be aware, proactive and empathetic
  • take each notice of disability seriously
  • get your HR partner involved as soon as possible

Creating a more accommodating workplace takes a cultural shift, too. Every employee should take ADA training at least every two years. New hires — especially fresh managers — should take this training as soon as possible.

Easy-to-use learning management software simplifies this process. The tech makes it easy to deliver regular training on ADA compliance, reasonable accommodations and more.

Remember, the goal of the ADA is to give individuals with disabilities the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. These people are your co-workers, team members and employees. And they deserve the opportunity to be successful.


DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.