Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Employment discrimination encompasses discrimination based on a person’s disability and making reasonable accommodations for that person’s disability.

I.  Reasonable Accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees.  42 USC § 12112,  Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. Pa. 1999.).  A primary goal of the ADA is to ensure that disabled individuals are able to fully participate in society.  42 U.S. Code § 12101.  To this end, “discrimination” under the ADA encompasses not only overt discrimination but also the failure to make reasonable modifications to the job or the workplace in order to accommodate an employee’s disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).

These are known as “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA.

The “reasonable accommodation” provisions of the ADA essentially require an employer to figure out if there is something reasonable it can do to allow a disabled employee to perform her job.

If there is, the employer must do it.

II.  When an Employee is Entitled to a Reasonable Accommodation

An employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation if she can demonstrate that she is as qualified individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).   A qualified individual with a disability is a person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment which significantly limits one or more life activities and (2) and is able to perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation. 42 U.S.C. 12111(8).

An employee must notify the employer of his disability and need for an accommodation. All an employee has to do to is express to the employer that they need help performing their job because of a medical condition. Taylor, 184 F.3d at 313.  This can be done informally and the employee does not need to use the term “reasonable accommodation” or “ADA.” Id.

Once the employer is on notice, the employer must engage the employee in an “interactive process” to identify an accommodation which will work for the employee.  Id. at 311-12. The interactive process must be flexible and imposes a burden on the employer to request any additional information it needs to determine whether accommodation is possible. Id. at 316; see also Bultemeyer v. Fort Wayne Community Sch., 100 F.3d 1281, 1285 (7th Cir. 1996).

III.  Scope of a Reasonable Accommodation

The scope of potential reasonable accommodations is vast and depends on the employee’s needs and resources.  Reasonable accommodations can include alterations to facilities or equipment, job restructuring, modified work schedules, reassignment, providing interpreters, changing workplace policies and more.

If an accommodation is possible, the employer must provide the accommodation unless doing so would cause “undue hardship.” Id. at 311; 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).  This means that the employer can refuse the accommodation only if it would impose significant difficulty or expense in light of the employer’s resources or the employee’s job.  If an employer refuses an accommodation and is later sued for discrimination, the employer must prove that the requested accommodation posed an “undue hardship.”  US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, 402 (2002).

An employer who refuses to accommodate a disable employee takes on a significant financial risk. If an employer fires an employee instead of providing an accommodation, it may be responsible for paying the employees lost wages and benefits, out of pocket losses and emotional distress and attorneys’ fees. 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a); 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a)(3).  In some cases, punitive damages may be awarded. Id.  In these cases, the employers refusal to accommodate is ultimately much more expensive and burdensome than the requested accommodation would have been.