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Hiring the Disabled: What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

The question of how far an employer must go to accommodate a disabled employee is at the very heart of the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Answering that question starts with understanding the term "reasonable accommodations."

An accommodation is any change in the physical workplace, or in the methodology usually employed to perform a job, that allows a qualified individual with a disability to apply for and hold that particular job.

There are three categories of reasonable accommodations:

  • changes to a job application process that enable a qualified disabled applicant to be considered for the position.
  • changes to the physical work environment, or to the manner in which a job is normally performed, that permit a qualified disabled individual to perform the essential functions of that job.
  • changes that allow a disabled employee to take advantage of all of the benefits and privileges of employment in the same way that all non-disabled employees do. 

The term "reasonable" refers to the change being "feasible" or "plausible."  The only exception to an employer's obligation to provide reasonable accommodation is if it would cause "undue hardship" to the employer.  Undue hardship means that an employer would face great difficulty or expense to make the accommodation because they lack the resources or ability to provide the requested accommodation.  Undue hardship also refers to reasonable accommodations that are so extensive, substantial, or disruptive, that they would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.

Keep in mind that in spite of the undue hardship clause, there are still a number of reasonable accommodations that do change operations, on some level, that the employer is required to make.  The majority of them have to do with job performance:

  • Job Restructuring - While an employer never has to reassign essential functions of a job in order to accommodate a disabled employee, they are required to reassign secondary job functions that an employee is unable to perform because of a disability.  They must also change when and how any function is performed, whether it is essential or secondary, to accommodate a disabled employee. 

By the same token, if an employer restructures a job to eliminate some secondary functions, the employer can require the disabled employee to assume other secondary functions that they can perform. 

  • Leave - Allowing the disabled employee to use accrued paid leave or unpaid leave when it is necessary because of their disability is another reasonable accommodation.  An employer does not have to provide paid leave beyond that which they normally provide to employees.  Employers can allow a disabled employee to use all of their accrued paid leave before providing unpaid leave. 

  • Modified Scheduling - This includes changing arrival or departure times, providing periodic breaks, and changing the time certain functions are performed.  An employer must provide a modified schedule for a disabled employee, even if  they don't provide such schedules for other employees unless it represents an undue hardship. 

  • Modifying Personnel Policies - It would be a reasonable accommodation to modify a policy requiring employees to schedule vacation time in advance if a disabled employee needed to use accrued vacation time immediately because of disability- related medical problems, unless it presents an undue hardship.  In addition, an employer may be required to provide additional leave to an employee with a disability in spite of their leave policy, unless it presents an undue hardship. 

  • Reassignment - Reassignment to a vacant position for which the disabled employee is qualified is also considered a reasonable accommodation.  This must be provided to an employee whose disability makes it impossible for them to continue to perform the functions of their current position.  The only exception is if the employer can prove that it would cause an undue hardship. 

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