If your disabilities are making it difficult for you to thrive at work, you may be in need of accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows workers to request accommodations from their places of employment. Adaptations may be made for physical disabilities, such as a wheelchair ramp, or mental disabilities, such as a quiet work area for someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
If your request is reasonable, the ADA states that your workplace should implement it. However, you may run into some reluctance on the part of management. Your employer could claim that your accommodation request would cause an undue burden, which means that they can legally reject it.
This page will walk you through the basic steps of requesting accommodations, some examples of reasonable accommodations and undue hardships, and your options in case your employer denies your accommodation request.
What’s a Reasonable Accommodation?
The Americans with Disabilities Act outlines steps that employers must take to accommodate workers with disabilities. Workplaces are expected to provide disabled workers with the tools that they need to successfully carry out their job responsibilities without their conditions getting in the way. Reasonable accommodations include changes to make workplace facilities more accessible, additional breaks or flexible work schedules, and assistive technology. For deaf and hard-of-hearing employees, asking the company to hire a sign-language interpreter can also be a reasonable accommodation.
Reasonable accommodations are intended to benefit both the employee and their company, as it will help the employee to overcome the obstacles that make it difficult for them to fulfill the expectations of their job. In fact, over half of employers who have implemented a reasonable accommodation say that it has increased productivity.
Requesting an ADA accommodation
To receive a workplace accommodation, you will first have to request it from your employer. Requests can be verbal or written, and they do not require the assistance of an employment lawyer or any official government paperwork. However, submitting the request in writing will let you keep a record in case disputes arise.
Rather than simply outlining their disabilities, an accommodation request should suggest specific accommodations, especially as it relates to carrying out specific job duties. For example, a seeing-impaired employee whose job description includes communicating with company clients might request a work computer equipped with screen-reading technology and a braille keyboard. The request can also include medical records or doctors’ notes to provide evidence of your disabilities.
The ADA allows prospective employees to request accommodations throughout the interview process. For example, a prospective employee who uses a wheelchair might request a different location for their interview if the company premises are inaccessible.
Negotiating a reasonable accommodation
Employers do not have to grant accommodation requests immediately. They may be hesitant if an accommodation would cost the company money or reduce your working hours. However, rather than denying the request outright, employers are required by the ADA to engage employees in a “flexible, interactive process” in which both parties negotiate a reasonable accommodation.
For example, an employee who is on dialysis might request regular leave for treatment that exceeds the amount of medical leave originally specified in their employment contract. If the employer is hesitant to give the employee as much paid leave as they are requesting, they might instead offer the employee the option to work remotely from the dialysis clinic. The employee may accept this accommodation, or they may continue negotiating.
Appealing an accommodation denial
If your employer denies your accommodation request and refuses to discuss potential alternatives with you, you can enlist an employment lawyer to advocate for you. They may agree when they realize that such behavior is illegal under the ADA.
If your employer denies your requests, you have difficulty performing your job duties due to your responsibilities, and you lose your job, you can sue your employer for wrongful termination.
How Does the ADA Define an Undue Hardship?
If an employee sues a company for failing to agree to an accommodation, the ADA allows the company to defend its decision on the grounds that the accommodation would have created an undue hardship. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that, in order to reject an accommodation on grounds of undue hardship, an employer has to provide “an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense.” The validity of an undue hardship claim is determined case-by-case, but some factors make an accommodation request more likely to be rejected.
Disruption to operation of business
An employee who requests a substantial amount of time off work as an accommodation might have trouble getting their employer to agree. A shift lead at a woodworking company requested three months off work for recovery from surgery. It was rejected on the basis that granting the additional leave would be an undue hardship. He was fired after his FMLA leave expired and sued the company for wrongful termination.
The company stated that holding the worker’s job during his extended leave, rather than replacing him, would significantly disrupt their business. If the company was planning to operate at its normal level of productivity without placing an undue burden on other workers, it would have to hire someone to take the employee’s place. However, to give the employee his job back, they would need to make that new hire’s position temporary. Since the employee’s management position required extensive qualifications, the company thought that it was unlikely that a qualified candidate would accept a temporary contract. The court of appeals agreed, and the employee did not get his job back.
If the expense of an accommodation would be a significant burden on a company, it could be rejected as an undue burden. There is no specific dollar threshold, and courts sometimes decide whether or not the expense of an accommodation would cause an undue burden based on the company’s net worth. For example, a nurse requested that the hospital where she worked hire a sign-language interpreter so she could communicate with her patients and coworkers. The hospital claimed that the interpreter’s salary was too high and rejected the claim. The court, however, disagreed. Because the hospital had a budget of over $1 billion, they decided that the cost of an interpreter was too marginal to disrupt their operations. On the other hand, a court might not side with a worker at a modestly budgeted small business who also requests an interpreter. While the interpreter’s salary may have been a drop in the bucket for a major hospital, it could cause a smaller business to cut staff, reduce pay, or pursue other disruptive cost-saving measures.
Follow the Money
Many reasonable accommodations can be implemented at a marginal cost to the company. In fact, nearly half cost nothing at all, and the other half is still affordable for most viable companies. Most accommodations that cost money only require a one-time cost averaging $300. Only 7% of necessary accommodations have a recurring cost, which averaged out to $3,750 annually.
Accommodations such as allowing an employee to bring a service or support animal to work, allowing an employee to work remotely, or a flexible work schedule without any reduction in hours can be carried out at no cost to a company. Other costless requests include moving an employee’s workspace to a different part of the office, allowing an employee to communicate via email rather than face-to-face meetings, or adjustments to management style, for example, providing an employee on the autism spectrum with more precise, more direct, and more immediate feedback than is standard practice.
Even if an accommodation is not free for the company, the cost is usually relatively low. An employee at a hazardous worksite who is hard of hearing may require the installation of strobe lights so they can be aware of incoming hazards. These lights can cost as low as $42 each. An employee with carpal tunnel syndrome may require an ergonomic keyboard, which can be had for under $100. Wheelchair ramps are more expensive to implement than most accommodations: depending on how elaborate the ramp system is, it may cost over $1,000 to implement. However, a simple entrance ramp can cost under $200.
Do I Need an Employment Attorney?
If your employer has rejected your request for an accommodation that you need to succeed in the workplace and has not offered a viable compromise, hiring an employment attorney may be the right move. A lawyer with a strong background in the ADA might be able to persuade your employer to agree to your request. If you lose your job due to the inability to successfully perform at work without a reasonable accommodation, an employment attorney can help you pursue a wrongful termination case.
If you know that you require job accommodations but are not sure what to ask for specifically, the Job Accommodation Network has an extensive list of disabilities and accommodations that could help the employees who cope with them. Your local Disability Rights Network Protection & Advocacy System can also help you inform yourself about your rights as an employee with disabilities. Finally, Expertise.org’s employment lawyer directory can help you find an experienced employment attorney in your area.
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