If you have a disability, you have the right to an accommodation at work that will allow you to do your job, if it's reasonable for your employer to provide one. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your employer isn’t required to provide an accommodation that would pose an undue hardship on its business such as significant costs or other burdens. Read on to learn more about your accommodation rights, your employer’s obligations, and how to negotiate an effective accommodation.
The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with disabilities. Discrimination includes not providing accommodations that are reasonable. (To learn what counts as a disability under the ADA, see our article on disability discrimination.)
As long as you are otherwise qualified for you job, you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation: a change to your workplace, workspace, work rules, schedule, or other policies that will allow you to perform your job.
You are entitled to an accommodation only if you are qualified for the job. You are qualified only if both of the following are true:
Accommodations are modifications to the physical structure of your workspace, changes to your job, exceptions to usual work policies or rules, or other changes that will allow you to do your job. If you use a wheelchair, for example, you might need a desktop lowered, a close-in parking space, or a rest room stall that is wide enough to accommodate your chair. If you have cancer, you may need time off work for treatment and the flexibility to work from home or work shorter hours when you are not feeling well. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you may need voice-activated software and an ergonomic mouse and desk setup. If you have attention deficit disorder, you may need permission to use noise-cancelling headphones and to receive written assignments, with clear deadlines, from your supervisor.
Disabling conditions affect people differently. One person may recover quickly and completely from back surgery for a ruptured disk, for example, while another requires months of rehabilitation and work restrictions. Which accommodation is right for you will depend on your abilities, your condition, and your job.
If you need an accommodation, you must ask for one. The ADA puts that burden on employees, in order to avoid requiring employers to make assumptions or guesses about an employee’s condition, disability, or needs. Make your request in writing, including information on your disability, the tasks you are having trouble with, and accommodations that might help. You can attach a note from your doctor, explaining how your condition limits you and what accommodations might work. Learn more about requesting a reasonable accommodation.
Once you ask for an accommodation, your employer must engage in what the law calls a “flexible, interactive process”—essentially, a good-faith negotiation or discussion—with you to come up with an effective accommodation. Your employer doesn’t have to provide the accommodation you ask for, but it must try to come up with an accommodation that will allow you to do your job. For example, rather than remodeling a restroom near your office to accommodate your walker, your employer might offer to move you closer to an existing accessible restroom. As long as the new office will work for you, that is likely an effective accommodation – even if you preferred the view from your old space.
Your employer does not have to give you an accommodation that would create “undue hardship”: significant expense or burden, given the size, resources, and structure of your employer. For example, if you work for a smaller employer with limited resources and budget, it might be an undue hardship to retrofit an older office building to accommodate a wheelchair or to provide an extended period of time off work.
Even less expensive accommodations might create undue hardship if they would have a significant negative effect on the company. For example, if you work for a nightclub that is known for its extensive light displays on the dance floor, it might create an undue hardship for the company to turn off the lights—even if that would be a very effective accommodation for your migraines or seizure disorder.
If your employer ignores your accommodation request, refuses to discuss particular accommodations with you, offers you only an accommodation that won’t work, denies your request for an accommodation, or penalizes you for making the request, you should talk to a disability lawyer. A lawyer can review the facts and let you know your rights. If your employer acted illegally, a lawyer can step in to try and get you the help you need. And, if you ultimately lose your job because of your request, a lawyer can represent you in negotiations and legal proceedings against your employer.