The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees with disabilities. Employers may not, for example, refuse to hire someone or pay someone less just because that person has a disability. However, the ADA goes further than simply outlawing discrimination: It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees to do their jobs.
An accommodation is assistance or a change in the job or the workplace that will allow an employee with a disability to do a job. Accommodations generally fall into one of these categories:
The determination of whether a particular accommodation is reasonable is made on a case-by-case basis. Reasonable accommodations may include:
For example, if a cashier who has lupus gets tired easily and has difficulty making it to the end of her shift, a stool is a reasonable accommodation because it's a practical solution to the problem of fatigue posed by requiring the cashier to stand all day. It's also effective because the cashier can continue to perform the essential functions of the job while sitting down.
It's the applicant's or employee's responsibility to request an accommodation in the first place. The employer isn't legally required to anticipate that the employee needs an accommodation or to guess at what might help the employee.
Employees don't have to make the request in writing, nor do they have to use any particular language. (In other words, the employee doesn't have to mention the ADA or use the words "reasonable accommodation" in making the request.)
An employee simply needs to request that some workplace change be made because of a medical condition, impairment, or disability. Someone other than the applicant or employee (such as a spouse, coworker, or friend) can request the accommodation on the employee's behalf.
Once an employee requests an accommodation, the employer has a legal obligation to engage in a "flexible interactive process" with the employee. Essentially, this means the employer must talk to the employee and collaborate on finding a reasonable accommodation.
The employer does not have to grant a specific accommodation requested by the employee, as long as the employer works with the employee to come up with an effective accommodation.
If the employee's need for an accommodation isn't obvious, the employer may ask the employee to submit medical certification of the employee's disability and limitations.
Certain accommodations are not considered reasonable, and an employer is not required to make these changes. They include:
An employer doesn't need to provide an accommodation that would create an undue hardship. An undue hardship exists if an accommodation would involve significant difficulty or expense for the employer or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. Whether an accommodation creates an undue hardship depends on a number of factors, including:
Although many undue hardships are financial, that isn't always the case. For example, suppose an employee with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) applies for a sales job for a computer company. The job entails walking a busy, open, showroom floor, demonstrating the features of various gadgets and making sales. The employee requests that the company accommodate his disability by providing him with a private office and requiring customers to come to his office one at a time to make purchases.
Even if this is relatively inexpensive, it would constitute an undue hardship because it fundamentally changes the wide open, bustling shopping experience the company is trying to create.
The ADA doesn't specify a time period in which your employer must respond to your request for accommodation. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the agency responsible for enforcing the employment provisions of the ADA—has indicated that employers must act as quickly as possible in responding to the accommodation request, engaging in the interactive process, and providing the agreed-upon accommodation.
EEOC guidance states that an employer's unnecessary delays can result in a violation of the ADA.
If your employer ignores your request for an accommodation, your first step should be to make sure you were understood. Put your request in writing, addressed to your manager and the human resources department, and specifically mention the ADA.
Explain that you have a legal right to a reasonable accommodation for your disability. Even though the law doesn't require you to be so explicit, your employer might not understand its obligations or might not have fully grasped your request.
If your employer denies your reasonable accommodation request, it's important to find out why. Ask for a written explanation of the denial. Depending on the reason for the denial, you may be able to continue to work with your employer to arrive at a resolution. For example, if your employer denies your request because it's not reasonable or will cause them undue hardship, they still have an obligation under the ADA to collaborate with you to find a reasonable alternative accommodation.
If you're unable to arrive at a resolution, you might be able to appeal your employer's denial of your request for reasonable accommodation. Some employers have a formal accommodation appeal process detailed in the employee handbook or available from human resources. For employers who have no such process, you can also try appealing the denial by sending an email to human resources or a manager.
If your employer ignores or denies your request for reasonable accommodation and you're unable to reach an agreement regarding an alternative accommodation, it might be time to talk to a lawyer.
An experienced employment lawyer can help you assess your situation and demand the accommodation to which you are legally entitled. Not surprisingly, many employers are quicker to respond when a lawyer is involved.
A lawyer can also help you make sure the accommodation provided is suitable. And, if your employer continues to drag its heels or ignore you, a lawyer can help you file a charge of discrimination to protect your right to file a disability discrimination lawsuit.
Updated August 11, 2023