What is meant by a “reasonable accommodation”?

December 10, 2015

Topics: Disability and Leave Obligations

Federal and state laws protect employees with disabilities, as defined by those laws, from discrimination on the basis of those disabilities (in other words, from being treated differently because of their disability, presuming they can otherwise perform their job).  These laws also allow disabled employees to request reasonable accommodations to help them overcome any limitations their disability may impose on their ability to perform their job.

A reasonable accommodation is a change to a job condition, equipment or workplace that would give a disabled person the opportunity to perform the essential functions of the job—despite any limitation the disability might impose.  The accommodation could involve a change to the application process, to the workplace, to the way the job is done, or to employee facilities.  The employer must provide a means for the employee to access the workplace or worksite, to access equipment used in his or her job and to access facilities (such as break rooms) used by other employees.

In order to qualify for a reasonable accommodation, the employee must otherwise be qualified for the job and the employer must know about the disability.

Employers are required to provide an accommodation when requested, although not necessarily the one requested by the employee.  The best practice is for the employer and employee to discuss the employee’s needs and various alternatives for addressing those needs, to determine what is reasonable.  That discussion process is called entering into the “interactive process.”

The employer is only required to provide accommodations that are “reasonable,” and is not required to provide an accommodation that would impose an undue hardship on the employer.  Whether an accommodation is reasonable, or imposes undue hardship, will depend on a number of factors, including the size and economic resources of the employer.

As an example, an employee who uses a wheelchair may request office furniture that will allow the employee to move around in his or her office, fit the wheelchair under a desk and reach files.  This may be a reasonable accommodation that the employer will be able to provide.  However, if an employee who uses a wheelchair requests that the employer install an elevator, the employer may not be required to grant the employee’s request because the cost of installing one may impose an undue hardship on the employer.  If, however, the employee’s job requires that he or she access other floors, the employer needs to explore ways to make that happen – or to contain the employee’s responsibilities to levels the employee can access, presuming such is reasonable and does not create an undue hardship.

As another example, an employee with impaired vision may request an aide to read materials aloud, and an employee with impaired hearing may request an aide to interpret communications into sign language.  These requests may be reasonable—but there also may be other alternatives, such as magnification machines to enlarge the reading materials. Employers are not required to provide personal devices such as eyeglasses or hearing aids.

When faced with a request for an accommodation an employer’s obligation is to work with the employee to determine whether a reasonable one can be provided.  If any accommodation would be unreasonable and/or an undue hardship (as with the seamstress in a down comforter factory who was allergic to both feathers and cotton thread so no accommodation that removed her from those materials was possible), it is possible that the company may be able to let the employee go.  However, such determinations are fraught with legal issues and should be made in consultation with counsel.