Disability Accommodations in the Workplace


By Stephanie Hammerwold

According to the 2010 census, 19% of adults in the U.S. have a disability. This means that most employers will at some point deal with a request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Not only is providing a reasonable accommodation the right thing to do, it is also the law. Disabled workers have the potential to be just as productive and valuable as the rest of the workforce, so it is important that employers have a plan in place to help these employees have the tools they need to succeed and do their jobs.

What is a Disability?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says someone may be disabled “if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing or learning).” The EEOC further adds that someone may be disabled if they have a history of a disability or if they are believed to have a disability that is not minor or transitory.

Employers may not discriminate against someone on the basis of disability. This includes both employees and job applicants. Employers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

Reasonable Accommodation & the Interactive Process

According to the EEOC, “A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.” While employers may fear that they will have to make difficult or expensive changes to accommodate disabled workers, the reality is that many accommodations are easy fixes.

When an employee approaches you with a request for accommodation, begin the interactive process. This involves working with the employee to figure out how to meet their needs. Provide forms that an employee can complete with their doctor that detail their specific request. View the interactive process as a conversation, so if the first request the employee makes is not something you can easily accommodate, make alternate suggestions until you land upon something that will work. Remember that not every disability is the same, so even if, for example, you have two employees requesting accommodation for depression, their needs may be different.

The Job Accommodation Network is a service provided by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). JAN’s site gives employers tips and information on various disabilities and possible accommodations. They provide a number of examples of easy accommodations. Take for example an employee who struggles with getting to work on time due to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). An easy accommodation would be to give the employee a flexible start time.

Training Managers & Getting Extra Help

Train your managers on how to handle accommodation requests. Many local social service agencies who help disabled people can offer resources to use in training and may even be able to send someone to speak to your managers about disability in the workplace. Training will give your managers a chance to ask questions to understand that the accommodation process is not necessarily difficult.

While many accommodation requests are easy, you may sometimes run across one that presents challenges. JAN offers a number that employers can call for assistance, and you may also want to consider contacting an employment attorney for guidance if you are struggling with meeting an employee’s request.