The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects any employee with a permanent, long-term or chronic disability in private and government organizations, labor unions and employment agencies against discrimination because of a disability. This protection extends to all work-related activities, from the job application process through termination, and includes working conditions and fringe benefits. If you have a disability and believe you need alterations to some aspects of your job or job site, you can request reasonable accommodations.
But what' is "reasonable"? Both employers and employees have a stake in this issue and may have different opinions. To offer the job in the first place, an employer has to be reasonably sure the applicant is qualified and can carry out the job's major activities. A worker with a disability may ask for accommodations to help with marginal or incidental job functions. These could include scheduling, physical space adaptations, the use of interpreters or personal-care attendants, and performing the work differently. The bottom line is: Is the final outcome in line with expectations for other employees doing the same work?
'Undue Hardship' Clause for Employers
Employers considering accommodations generally welcome suggestions as to what would be most helpful. However, they are not obligated to do anything that would "impose an undue hardship." What constitutes a "hardship" may depend on the size of the business.
A large corporation is expected to accommodate wheelchairs in elevators and restrooms as well as in any workspace an employee in a chair would need to use. However, break areas may not be as easily accessible. In this case, a worker with a physical disability could reasonably request an accessible break area. It may be a lonely experience -- the employer does not need to make other employees use the accessible space for their breaks. In this situation, a little creative brainstorming between the employer and employee could provide a more satisfactory solution.
Asking a small business to put in an elevator would probably be considered an undue hardship. There may be other ways to accommodate someone who uses a wheelchair. Perhaps many of the job functions could be done at another, more accessible site and meetings with supervisors held in places both can get to. However, it is reasonable to expect office furniture will be at an appropriate height, technologically adapted equipment will be available, adequate spaces between desks or cubicles will exist, restrooms will accommodate wheelchairs and so on.
Accommodation, Not Special Treatment
If the disability is illness-related and accommodations require adaptations such as time for doctors' appointments or periodic leave time, an employee should be open with an employer from the start. It is important to agree on measures that will not make workers with disabilities seem too different from the rest of the staff, unless a worker with a disability is willing to discuss the situation with coworkers. Other employees will notice any special treatment and speculate about the reasons. If the supervisor and worker collaborate on how to handle the requested accommodations in a cooperative manner, the outcome will be happier for everyone.
The circumstances for a "reasonable accommodation" can be as varied as the individuals involved. Remember that workers with disabilities are entitled to support from their employers in meeting job expectations. Employers must provide accommodations of some sort if requested. Employees should:
- Ask for adaptations, believing something agreeable to both parties can be worked out.
- Bring suggestions to the meeting.
- Expect to negotiate a solution.
Remember: Positive relationships are a most important asset on the job.
A wealth of information about the ADA and its applications can be found in this Q&A section of the ADA Web site.