Under Title I of the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees must provide reasonable accommodations to eligible disabled employees — unless the accommodations will cause undue hardship for the employer or pose a direct threat to the safety of those in the workplace. This portion of the law also establishes guidelines for processing reasonable accommodations requests.
First, the employee or a representative must submit a request for reasonable accommodations to the employer. Although the request does not have to be in writing, it’s good practice to have documentation.
Second, you’ll need to initiate an “interactive process.” This is the information-gathering phase, which will help you determine whether reasonable accommodations should be granted. During this process, the employer, employee and employee’s health care provider exchange information about the employee’s disability and how it may hinder the employee’s ability to perform essential job duties.
Be sure to ask the employee or his or her health care provider for documentation that will enable you to assess the nature, severity, duration and limitations of the disability.
Note that the health care provider cannot release information about the employee’s disability without the employee’s consent. So you’ll need to obtain written permission from the employee in order to consult with his or her health care provider.
Third, determine whether the employee has a disability under the ADA, which defines a disabled individual as someone who:
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
- Has a history of such an impairment.
- Is perceived as having such an impairment.
Impairments regarded as a disability include blindness, deafness, cancer, HIV or AIDS, intellectual disability, autism, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, major depression, multiple sclerosis, and mobility deterioration.
If the impairment isn’t obvious or observable, it can be difficult to know whether the employee has a disability. In this case, you’ll need to use the interactive process to learn more about the disability and its limitations.
Note that in 2008, the ADA was amended to broaden the definition of “disability,” so make sure you consider the expanded definition when assessing whether an employee is disabled.
Fourth, decide which (if any) accommodations are needed. Accommodations will vary by employee disability and limitations. Examples are job reassignment, modifying work schedules, telecommuting, extended leave, changing work equipment or devices, and enhancing the accessibility of existing facilities. The interactive process can help you identify the most fitting accommodations.
Fifth, ensure the accommodations are reasonable and will not cause you undue hardship. When examining whether a request for reasonable accommodations causes undue hardship, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which enforces the ADA — considers both the cost of providing the accommodations and the employer’s financial stability.
Lastly, let the employee know in writing whether his or her request has been approved or denied. If the request has been approved, say which accommodations will be granted and when they are expected to begin.
Keep in mind that the employee’s disability or your business needs may change, so be sure to update the accommodations process accordingly. Finally, note that this is just an introduction to a complicated topic, so if you are unsure of your responsibilities, be sure to get qualified legal assistance.