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Reasonable Accommodations and Undue Hardship Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
This section clarifies the rights and responsibilities of employers and individuals with disabilities regarding reasonable accommodations and undue hardship. Title I of the ADA requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment, except when such accommodation would cause an undue hardship.
For Employees, Community Members and Others:
As you can see below, the ADA guidelines can be extremely complex. Therefore, if you need additional discussion of these policies and if you have other questions or comments, please feel free to contact Mr. Echevarria by telephone at 774.357.2682 or email correspondence at Emmanuel.Echevarria@BristolCC.edu.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment, unless to do so would cause undue hardship. In general, an accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. There are three categories of "reasonable accommodations":
- modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position such qualified applicant desires; or
- modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position, or
- modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity's employee with a disability
to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly
situated employees without disabilities. The duty to provide reasonable accommodation
is a fundamental statutory requirement because of the nature of discrimination faced
by individuals with disabilities. Although many individuals with disabilities can
apply for and perform jobs without any reasonable accommodations, there are workplace
barriers that keep others from performing jobs which they could do with some form
of accommodation. These barriers may be physical obstacles (such as inaccessible facilities
or equipment), or they may be procedures or rules (such as rules concerning when work
is performed, when breaks are taken, or how essential or marginal functions are performed).
Reasonable accommodation removes workplace barriers for individuals with disabilities.
Reasonable accommodation is available to qualified applicants and employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations must be provided to qualified employees regardless of whether they work part-time, full-time, or are considered "probationary". Generally, the individual with a disability must inform the employer that an accommodation is needed.
There are a number of possible reasonable accommodations that an employer may have to provide in connection with modifications to the work environment or adjustments in how and when a job is performed. These include:
- making existing facilities accessible;
- job restructuring;
- part-time or modified work schedules;
- acquiring or modifying equipment;
- changing tests, training materials or policies;
- reassignment to a vacant position.
A modification or adjustment is "reasonable" if it "seems reasonable on its face, i.e., ordinarily or in the run of cases"; this means it is "reasonable" if it appears to the "feasible" or "plausible". An accommodation also must be effective in meeting the needs of the individual. In the context of job performance, this means that a reasonable accommodation enables the individual to perform the essential functions of the position. Similarly, a reasonable accommodation enables an applicant with a disability to have an equal opportunity to participate in the application process and to be considered for a job. Finally, a reasonable accommodation allows an employee with a disability an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment that employees without disabilities enjoy.
Example A: An employee with a hearing disability must be able to contact the public by telephone. The employee proposes that he use a TTY to call a relay service operator who can then place the telephone call and relay the conversation between the parties. This is "reasonable" because a TTY is a common device used to facilitate communication between hearing and hearing-impaired individuals. Moreover, it would be effective in enabling the employee to perform his job.
Example B: A cashier easily becomes fatigued because of lupus and, as a result, has difficulty making it through her shift. The employee requests a stool because sitting greatly reduces the fatigue. This accommodation is "reasonable" because it is a common sense solution to remove a workplace barrier - being required to stand - when the job can be effectively performed sitting down. This "reasonable" accommodation is effective because it addresses the employee's fatigue and enables her to perform her job.
Example C: A cleaning company rotates its staff to different floors on a monthly basis. One crew member has a psychiatric disability. While his mental illness does not affect his ability to perform the various cleaning functions, it does make it difficult to adjust to alterations in his daily routine. The employee has had significant difficulty adjusting to the monthly changes in floor assignments. He asks for a reasonable accommodation and proposes three options: staying on one floor permanently, staying on one floor for two months and then rotating, or allowing a transition period to adjust to a change in floor assignments. These accommodations are "reasonable" because they appear to be feasible solutions to this employee's problems dealing with changes to his routine. They also appear to be effective because they would enable him to perform his cleaning duties.
There are several modifications that are not considered forms of reasonable accommodations. An employer does not have to eliminate an essential function, i.e., a fundamental duty of the position. This is because a person with a disability who is unable to perform the essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation, is not a "qualified" individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Nor is an employer required to lower production standards - whether qualitative or quantitative - that are applied uniformly to employees with and without disabilities. However, an employer may have to provide reasonable accommodation to enable an employee with a disability to meet the production standard. While an employer is not required to eliminate an essential function or lower a production standard, it may do so if it wishes.
An employer does not have to provide as reasonable accommodations personal use items needed in accomplishing daily activities both on and off the job. Thus, an employer is not required to provide an employee with a prosthetic limb, a wheelchair, eyeglasses, hearing aids, or similar devices if they are also needed off the job. Furthermore, an employer is not required to provide personal use amenities, such as a hot pot or refrigerator, if those items are not provided to employees without disabilities. However, items that might otherwise be considered personal may be required as reasonable accommodations where they are specifically designed or required to meet job-related rather than personal needs.
The only statutory limitation on an employer's obligation to provide "reasonable accommodation" is that no such change or modification is required if it could cause "undue hardship" to the employer. "Undue hardship" means significant difficulty or expense and focuses on the resources and circumstances of the particular employer in relationship to the cost or difficulty of providing a specific accommodation. "Undue hardship" refers not only to financial difficulty, but to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. An employer must assess on a case-by-case basis whether a particular reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship. The ADA's "undue hardship" standard is different from that applied by courts under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for religious accommodation.
Requesting Reasonable Accommodations
How much can individual request a "reasonable accommodation"?
When an individual decides to request accommodation, the individual or his/her representative must let the employer know through the Disability Compliance Officer that s/he needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. To request an accommodation, an individual may use "plain English" and need not mention the ADA or use the phrase "reasonable accommodation".
Example A: An employee tells her supervisor, "I am having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments I am undergoing." This is a request for a reasonable accommodation.
Example B: An employee tells his supervisor, "I need six weeks off to get treatment for a back problem." This is a request for a reasonable accommodation.
Example C: A new employee, who uses a wheelchair, informs the employer that her wheelchair cannot fit under the desk in her office. This is a request for a reasonable accommodation.
Example D: An employee tells his supervisor that he would like a new chair because his present one is uncomfortable. Although this is a request for a change at work, his statement is insufficient to put the employer on notice that he is requesting a reasonable accommodation. He does not link his need for the new chair with a medical condition.
While an individual with a disability may request a change due to a medical condition, this request does not necessarily mean that the employer is required to provide a change. A request for reasonable accommodation is the first step in an informal, interactive process between the individual and the employer. In some instances, before addressing the merits of the accommodation request, the employer needs to determine if the individual's medical condition meets the ADA definition of "disability". A prerequisite for the individual to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.
When should an individual with a disability request a reasonable accommodation?
An individual with a disability may request a reasonable accommodation at any time during the application process or during the period of employment. The ADA does not preclude an employee with a disability from requesting a reasonable accommodation because s/he did not ask for one when applying for a job or after receiving a job offer. Rather, an individual with a disability should request a reasonable accommodation when s/he knows that there is a workplace barrier that is preventing him/her, due to a disability, from effectively competing for a position, performing a job, or gaining equal access to a benefit of employment. As a practical matter, it may be in an employee's interest to request a reasonable accommodation before performance suffers or conduct problems occur.
What must the employer do after receiving a request for reasonable accommodation?
The employer and the individual with a disability should engage in an informal process to clarify what the individual needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. The employer may ask the individual relevant questions that will enable him/her to make an informed decision about the request. This includes asking what type of reasonable accommodation is needed. The exact nature of the dialogue will vary. In some instances, both the disability and the type of accommodation required will be obvious, and thus there may be little or no need to engage in any discussion. In other situations, there may be a need to ask questions concerning the nature of the disability and the individual's functional limitations in order to identify an effective accommodation. While the individual with a disability does not have to be able to specify the precise accommodation, s/he does need to describe the problems posed by the workplace barrier. Additionally, suggestions from the individual with a disability may assist in determining the type of reasonable accommodation to provide. Where the individual or the employer are not familiar with possible accommodations, there are extensive public and private resources to help identify reasonable accommodations once the specific limitations and workplace barriers have been ascertained.
May an employer ask an individual for documentation when the individual requests reasonable accommodation?
Yes. When the disability and/or the need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask the individual for reasonable documentation about his/her disability and functional limitations. The employer is entitled to know that the individual has a covered disability for which s/he needs a reasonable accommodation.
Reasonable documentation means that the employer may require only the documentation that is needed to establish that a person has an ADA disability, and that the disability necessitates a reasonable accommodation. Thus, an employer, in response to a request for reasonable accommodation, cannot ask for documentation that is unrelated to determining the existence of a disability and the necessity for an accommodation. This means in most situations an employer cannot request a person's complete medical records because they are likely to contain information unrelated to the disability at issue and the need for accommodation. If an individual has more than one disability, an employer can request information pertaining only to the disability that requires a reasonable accommodation.
An employer may require that the documentation about the disability and the functional limitations come from an appropriate health care or rehabilitation professional. The appropriate professional in any particular situation will depend on the disability and the type of functional limitation it imposes. Appropriate professionals include, but are not limited to, doctors (including psychiatrists), psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, vocational rehabilitation specialists, and licensed mental health professionals.
In requesting documentation, employers should specify what types of information they are seeking regarding the disability, its functional limitations, and the need for reasonable accommodation. The individual can be asked to sign a limited release allowing the employer to submit a list of specific questions to the health care or vocational professional.
Example A: An employee says to an employer, "I'm having trouble reaching tools because of my shoulder injury." The employer may ask the employee for documentation describing the impairment; the nature, severity, and the duration of the impairment; the activity or activities that the impairment limits; and the extent to which the impairment limits the employee's ability to perform the activity or activities (i.e., the employer is seeking information as to whether the employee has an ADA disability).
Example B: A marketing employee has a severe learning disability. He attends numerous meetings to plan marketing strategies. In order to remember what is discussed at these meetings he must take detailed notes but, due to his disability, he has great difficulty writing. The employee tells his supervisor about his disability and requests a laptop computer to use in the meetings. Since neither the disability nor the need for accommodation are obvious, the supervisor may ask the employee for reasonable documentation about his impairment; the nature, severity, and duration of the impairment; the activity or activities that the impairment limits; and the extent to which the impairment limits the employee's ability to perform the activity or activities. The employer also may ask why the disability necessitates use of a laptop computer (or any other type of reasonable accommodation, such as a tape recorder) to help the employee retain the information from the meetings.
Example C: An employee's spouse phones the employee's supervisor on Monday morning to inform her that the employee had a medical emergency due to multiple sclerosis, needed to be hospitalized, and thus requires time off. The supervisor can ask the spouse to send in documentation from the employee's treating physician that confirms that the hospitalization was related to the multiple sclerosis and provides information on how long an absence may be required from work.
If an individual's disability or need for reasonable accommodation is not obvious, and s/he refuses to provide the reasonable documentation requested by the employer, then s/he is not entitled to reasonable accommodation. On the other hand, failure by the employer to initiate or participate in an informal dialogue with the individual after receiving a request for reasonable accommodation could result in liability for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.
May an employer require an individual to go to a health care professional of the employer's (rather than the employee's) choice for purposes of documenting need for accommodation and disability?
The ADA does not prevent an employer from requiring an individual to go to an appropriate health professional of the employer's choice if the individual provides insufficient information from his/her treating physician (or other health care professional) to substantiate that s/he has an ADA disability and needs a reasonable accommodation. However, if an individual provides insufficient documentation in response to the employer's initial request, the employer should explain why the documentation is insufficient and allow the individual an opportunity to provide the missing information in a timely manner. Documentation is insufficient if it does not specify the existence of an ADA disability and explain the need for reasonable accommodation.
Any medical examination conducted by the employer's health professional must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. This means that the examination must be limited to determining the existence of an ADA disability and the functional limitations that require reasonable accommodation.
Are there situations in which an employer cannot ask for documentation in response to a request for reasonable accommodation?
Yes. An employer cannot ask for documentation when: (1) both the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation are obvious, or (2) the individual has already provided the employer with sufficient information to substantiate that s/he has an ADA disability and needs the reasonable accommodation requested.
Example A: An employee brings medical documentation from her treating physician explaining that she has diabetes and that, as a result, she must test her blood sugar several times a day to ensure that her insulin level is safe in order to avoid a hyperglycemic reaction. The documentation explains that a hyperglycemic reaction can include extreme thirst, heavy breathing, drowsiness, and flushed skin, and eventually would result in unconsciousness. Depending on the results of the blood test, the employee might have to take insulin. The documentation requests that the employee be allowed three or four 10- minute breaks each day to test her blood, and if necessary, to take insulin. The doctor's documentation constitutes sufficient documentation that the person has an ADA disability because it describes a substantially limiting impairment and the reasonable accommodation needed as a result. The employer cannot ask for additional documentation.
Example B: One year ago, an employer learned that an employee had bipolar disorder after he requested a reasonable accommodation. The documentation provided at that time from the employee's psychiatrist indicated that this was a permanent condition, which would always involve periods in which the disability would remit and then intensify. The psychiatrist's documentation explained that during periods when the condition flared up, the person's manic moods or depressive episodes could be severe enough to create serious problems for the individual in caring for himself or working, and that medication controlled the frequency and severity of these episodes.
Now, one year later, the employee again requests a reasonable accommodation related to his bipolar disorder. Under these facts, the employer may ask for reasonable documentation on the need for the accommodation (if the need is not obvious), but it cannot ask for documentation that the person has an ADA disability. The medical information provided one year ago established the existence of a long-term impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
Example C: An employee gives her employer documentation from her doctor, stating that the employee has asthma and needs the employer to provide her with an air filter. This documentation contains insufficient information as to whether the asthma is an ADA disability because it does not provide any information as to its severity (i.e., whether it substantially limits a major life activity). Furthermore, the documentation does not identify precisely what problem exists in the workplace that requires an air filter or any other reasonable accommodation. Therefore, the employer can request additional documentation.
Is an employer required to provide the reasonable accommodation that the individual wants?
The employer may choose among reasonable accommodations as long as the chosen accommodation is effective. Thus, as part of the interactive process, the employer may offer alternative suggestions for reasonable accommodations and discuss their effectiveness in removing the workplace barrier that is impeding the individual with a disability.
If there are two possible reasonable accommodations, and one costs more or is more burdensome than the other, the employer may choose the less expensive or burdensome accommodation as long as it is effective (i.e., it would remove a workplace barrier, thereby providing the individual with an equal opportunity to apply for a position, to perform the essential functions of a position, or to gain equal access to a benefit or privilege of employment). Similarly, when there are two or more effective accommodations, the employer may choose the one that is easier to provide. In either situation, the employer does not have to show that it is an undue hardship to provide the more expensive or more difficult accommodation. If more than one accommodation is effective, "the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration. However, the employer providing the accommodation has the ultimate discretion to choose between effective accommodations.
Example A: An employee with a severe learning disability has great difficulty reading. His supervisor sends him many detailed memoranda which he often has trouble understanding. However, he has no difficulty understanding oral communication. The employee requests that the employer install a computer with speech output and that his supervisor send all memoranda through electronic mail which the computer can then read to him. The supervisor asks whether a tape recorded message would accomplish the same objective and the employee agrees that it would. Since both accommodations are effective, the employer may choose to provide the supervisor and employee with a tape recorder so that the supervisor can record her memoranda and the employee can listen to them.
Example B: An attorney with a severe vision disability requests that her employer provide someone to read printed materials that she needs to review daily. The attorney explains that a reader enables her to review substantial amounts of written materials in an efficient manner. Believing that this reasonable accommodation would be too costly, the employer instead provides the attorney with a device that allows her to magnify print so that she can read it herself. The attorney can read print using this device, but with such great difficulty it significantly slows down her ability to review written materials. The magnifying device is ineffective as a reasonable accommodation because it does not provide the attorney with an equal opportunity to attain the same level of performance as her colleagues. Without an equal opportunity to attain the same level of performance, this attorney is denied an equal opportunity to compete for promotions. In this instance, failure to provide the reader, absent undue hardship, would violate the ADA.
How quickly must an employer respond to a request for reasonable accommodation?
An employer should respond expeditiously to a request for reasonable accommodation. If the employer and the individual with a disability need to engage in an interactive process, this too should proceed as quickly as possible. Similarly, the employer should act promptly to provide the reasonable accommodation.
Example A: An employee who is blind requests adaptive equipment for her computer as a reasonable accommodation. The employer must order this equipment and is informed that it will take three months to receive delivery. No other company sells the adaptive equipment the employee needs. The employer notifies the employee of the results of its investigation and that it has ordered the equipment. Although it will take three months to receive the equipment, the employer has moved as quickly as it can to obtain it and thus there is no ADA violation resulting from the delay. The employer and employee should determine what can be done so that the employee can perform her/his job as effectively as possible while waiting for the equipment.
May an employer require an individual with a disability to accept a reasonable accommodation that s/he does not want?
No. An employer may not require a qualified individual with a disability to accept an accommodation. If, however, an employee needs a reasonable accommodation to perform an essential function or to eliminate a direct threat, and refuses to accept an effective accommodation, s/he may not be qualified to remain on the job.