Labor and Employment

What Is a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Your employer must provide reasonable accommodations for your disability, unless doing so would create an undue hardship.

If you have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your employer may not discriminate against you. This protection includes the right to a reasonable accommodation: changes to the usual workplace rules, policies, or environment that will allow you to do your job.

However, not every physical or mental ailment qualifies as a legal disability. And, there are some limits on your employer’s obligation to make accommodations for you. Below, we explain the rules for workplace accommodations.

Are You Protected By the ADA?

The ADA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against applicants and employees with disabilities. Employers must comply with the ADA if they have at least 15 employees. Many states have similar laws; some apply to smaller employers.

You are protected by the ADA if you are qualified for the job and you have a disability:

  • You are qualified for the job if you have the necessary education, licenses, experience, skills, and so on to do the work.
  • You have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities: the basic tasks of daily living, such as walking, seeing, hearing, learning, sleeping, and working. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of your reproductive, endocrine, or immune system, are also included.

Under the ADA, you are protected from discrimination not only if you have a disability, but also if you have a history of disability (for example, you had bypass surgery for heart trouble a few years back) or your employer incorrectly perceives you as having a disability (for example, your employer erroneously believes you cannot see because you have a facial disfigurement). However, you are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation if you are only perceived as having a disability.

What Is a Reasonable Accommodation?

As long as you are qualified and you have a disability, you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation, as long as it doesn’t create undue hardship for your employer. A reasonable accommodation might involve physical changes to the workplace, such as installing a ramp or lowering a desktop to accommodate a wheelchair. Some reasonable accommodations are changes to workplace policies. For example, an employer might allow an employee whose medication causes morning drowsiness to work a later shift, or an employer might allow an employee with diabetes to eat while working or take more frequent breaks to test insulin levels.

An employee might need time off for treatment, surgery, or therapy. Some accommodations involve management styles. For example, an employee with a processing disorder might ask a supervisor to give weekly written work assignments, rather than requesting projects orally, on the fly.

Undue Hardship

An employer need not provide an accommodation if it would create undue hardship: a significant cost or burden, considering the employer’s size, structure, and resources. A very expensive accommodation might create undue hardship. For example, an employer that operates a warehouse might use an intercom system for frequent important announcements. An employee with severe hearing loss might request that the employer install large electronic signs on every wall and room of the warehouse, so he can read the messages. This is likely a very expensive change, and may create undue hardship. However, the employer might offer to give the employee a vibrating beeper that communicates the messages or install a light that flashes when a new message is announced, so the employee can go to the central desk and read the message.

Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation

If you need a reasonable accommodation to do your job (or to apply for a job), the burden falls on you to request one. The ADA prohibits employers from asking intrusive questions about disabilities or making assumptions about what their employees can and cannot do. Even if your performance is falling short, your employer isn’t required to ask or guess that you need a reasonable accommodation.

Put your request in writing, explaining what your disability is and how it can be accommodated. Once you ask for an accommodation, your employer has a legal obligation to engage in a dialogue with you to try to come up with a solution that works. Your employer doesn’t have to provide the exact accommodation you request, but must try to come up with an effective one. If no accommodation can be made that doesn’t create undue hardship, you are not entitled to one.

Your employer may not retaliate against you for requesting an accommodation. If you face negative job consequences because you have a disability and requested a reasonable accommodation, consider filing a retaliation charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Talk to a Lawyer

If your employer refuses to provide you with an accommodation or talk to you to come up with an effective plan, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can assess whether you have a disability under the ADA, what accommodations might be reasonable, and whether your employer can prove an undue hardship. If you need an accommodation to do your job well, your work situation may quickly deteriorate if you are left to struggle without assistance. A lawyer can help assert your rights and try to negotiate a solution that will work for everyone.

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