Seven Steps to Reasonable Accommodation
Process Summary

John Patrick Evans

4/9/03

Reasonable accommodation is often defined as “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”. The reasonable accommodation process is best understood as a means by which barriers to the equal opportunity of an individual with disability are identified, removed or alleviated. The primary purpose of reasonable accommodation is intended to enable the individual with disability to perform a job, not remove the requirements associated with the job. Reasonable accommodation often challenges the method by which jobs functions are traditionally performed (function vs. method).

It is unlawful for an employer to fail to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified applicant or employee unless making the accommodation would cause an “undue hardship” (e.g. significant difficulty or expense). The responsibility to provide reasonable accommodation in an employment setting often falls into three categories:

  • Those that ensure equal opportunity in the application process;
  • Those that enable workers with disabilities to perform a position’s essential functions; and
  • Those that enable workers with disabilities to enjoy the same benefits and privileges of employment as enjoyed by workers without disabilities.
It is unlawful to deny employment opportunities to otherwise qualified workers with disabilities based on the need to make reasonable accommodations.

Implementing reasonable accommodation in employment settings may be as easy as an employee approaching his/her supervisor or human resource official and requesting assistance to remove a disability-related employment barrier. Collaboration between the employer representative and employee can take place on the same day. Disability-related barriers may be obvious, solutions for removing the barriers readily achievable and may be implemented without need for further dialog or information. The process of removing or alleviating the employment barrier in these types of situations could take as little as a few hours or days to resolve.

Some situations are more complex and time consuming. Information concerning an applicant or employee’s disability and functional limitations may not be readily apparent or available to the employer. Disability-related employment barriers may not be obvious. Reasonable solutions for removing the employment barriers may not be identified by either party or readily achievable. Cooperation among affected parties may not be taking place in good faith. When this happens, the reasonable accommodation process can take weeks, if not months, to complete.  The longer it takes to complete the process of accommodating an applicant or employee, the more complicated things may often become. These are a few of the reasons why it is strongly recommended employers have a process (procedures for employer and employees to follow) in place. Open and sincere channels of communication must be an integral part of a process that is supporting, not defeating.

Following are seven key procedural steps employers often follow to ensure that rights and responsibilities of both employer and employee are honored during the accommodation process:

1.  Post Notification. The employer should post notification of the right for an applicant or employee with disability to make an accommodation request and information on how to initiate such a request. The employer should maintain internal procedures for addressing related requests for reasonable accommodation. Applicants and employees with disabilities may not be aware that they can ask for accommodations or whom to contact should they have the need. Posting notification may be done via position announcements, during employee orientations, included in employee handbooks, when there are performance issues, situations where an employee’s disability is known to the employer, employee-based brochures or pamphlets and other means.
2. Request Accommodation. In general, it is the responsibility of the individual with a disability to inform the employer that an accommodation is needed to perform essential job functions or to receive equal benefits and privileges of employment. An employer is obligated to make an accommodation only to the “known limitations” of an otherwise qualified individual with disability. The individual with disability is “empowered” to notify the employer of the need for accommodations. Information an employer will often need to implement an employee’s request may include the: (1) type of disability, (2) functional limitations resulting from the reported condition, (3) application or job requirement impacted by the disability, (4) what the disability-related barrier is, and (5) what accommodation is being recommended for removing the barrier. The accommodation request need not be made in writing, though it is encouraged. Employees may request accommodations any time the job or disability necessitates the need.
3. Determine Eligibility. Determine if the individual requesting accommodation meets the "Definition of Disability" under state or federal statutes and is thereby eligible to request reasonable accommodations. Information obtained under a disability-related inquiry for reasonable accommodation should be collected and maintained on separate forms and in separate files and be treated as a confidential medical record. Disclosure of confidential records is restricted. The employee’s right to privacy and confidentiality of disability related information is paramount to the success of the reasonable accommodation process. Employers have an obligation to release disability-related information on a “need-to-know” only basis. Information concerning an employee’s disability may not be kept in personnel files. Requests for accommodations are to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
 
 4. Analyze Actual Job Involved. An individualized assessment may be necessary to determine appropriate accommodations. An  individualized assessment means analyzing the actual job duties and determining the true purpose or objective of a job. Such an assessment is necessary to ascertain which job functions are the essential job functions that an accommodation should enable an individual to perform. Depending on the nature of a position, essential functions may include: (a) specific tasks and responsibilities assigned to a position; (b) administrative requirements such as working hours or location; (c) tools and equipment necessary for successful job performance; (d) physical and cognitive requirements such as lifting or handling multiple priorities; (e) productivity requirements that include timelines, processes, quality or quantity; (f) health and safety requirements mandated under state/federal occupational statutes; and (g) work place conduct requirements.
5. Consult Individual with Disability. The accommodation process requires an individual assessment of the specific physical or mental limitations of the particular person in need of accommodation. Consult the individual with a disability to ascertain the precise job-related limitations imposed by the individual’s disability and how those limitations could be overcome with an accommodation. Employees should be prepared to assist the employer as needed to understand where a disability-related employment barrier exists. As appropriate, the employer has a right to request additional medical and/or vocational information as needed to implement an employee’s request for accommodation. Failure on the part of the employee to cooperate with the employer’s need for information could jeopardize or delay the accommodation process. The scope of an employer’s inquiry is limited to the reported condition and specific needs for accommodation.
 
6. Identify Potential Accommodations. In conjunction with the individual to be accommodated, identify potential accommodations and assess the effectiveness each would have in enabling the individual to participate in the application process, perform essential functions of a job, or receive equal benefits of employment. Essential functions by definition are the fundamental job duties (tasks and responsibilities) the individual who holds a job would have to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation, in order to be considered qualified for the position. The employer, as part of the process, may find that technical assistance is needed in determining how to accommodate a particular individual in a specific situation. Depending on the nature of a position and employment barrier, accommodation options have included:
  • Adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials, or policies
  • Provision of qualified readers or interpreters
  • Acquisition or modification of equipment or devices
  • Changes to existing facilities to make them readily accessible to and usable by workers with disabilities
  • Job restructuring (re-assignment of marginal job functions)
  • Part-time or modified work schedules
  • Administrative leave
  • Work at home (telecommuting)
  • Re-assignment to a vacant position
  • Changes in office communications
  • Physical changes to the workplace
  • Workplace policy modifications
  • Adjustments in supervisory methods
7. Consider the Individual’s Preference. Consider the preference of the individual to be accommodated and evaluate or implement the accommodation that is most appropriate for both the employee and employer. If more than one accommodation will enable the individual to perform the essential functions, or if the individual would prefer to provide his or her own accommodations, the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration. In circumstances where two types of accommodations are equally effective at removing an employment barrier, the employer holds the ultimate discretion to select the accommodation that is least difficult or expensive to implement. Not all accommodations work and therefore it recommended that they be tested for feasibility. Returning to Step 6 may be necessary to ensure Equal Opportunity.

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