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 How to Handle an Employee’s Request for Accommodation

Courtesy Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM)


Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified applicants and employees with a disability unless the employer can demonstrate that doing so creates an undue hardship to the employer or poses a direct threat to the safety of the employee or others in the workplace. An accommodation may include a change to the work environment or to the way in which a job is usually performed.

The accommodation process involves a systematic and in-depth review of the job requirements and the limitations or performance problems the employee’s disability creates. The purpose of this review is to identify changes or modifications that will allow the employee to perform the essential job duties free from workplace obstacles the employee’s disability previously created.

The employer begins by reviewing the essential job duties of the position, engaging in an interactive process with the employee and conducting a careful analysis of the employee’s requested accommodation. An employer may determine that providing the requested accommodation creates an undue hardship when the cost of providing the requested accommodation has a grave financial impact on the organization or is unduly disruptive.

This guide focuses on the various steps involved when handling a request for accommodation from a current employee against the requirements outlined in the ADA. Handling requests for accommodations by job applicants is covered in another guide.

Step 1: Determine whether the employer is covered by the ADA

Nonprofit and for-profit sector employers with 15 or more employees are considered covered employers under the ADA. Employees of state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations and federal sector employees are also protected under the ADA.

Step 2: Ensure a policy and procedure exists for handling accommodation requests

Review your organization’s policy and procedure for handling requests for accommodations.

Review existing job descriptions to ensure they include all aspects of the job and list all essential functions, including any physical requirements such as standing or sitting for long periods of time or lifting requirements.

Step 3: Determine whether the employee is a “qualified individual with a disability”

The ADA defines a qualified individual with a disability as an applicant or employee who has the knowledge, skills, experience, education or applicable license requirements that are necessary to perform the essential job duties and functions and is a person with a disability under the provisions of the ADA and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

Determine if the employee has a disability under the ADA and ADAAA (see Step 5 for more information and the assessment process).

Step 4: Initiate the interactive process

Engage in a process where the employee, health care provider and employer each share information about the nature of the disability and the limitations that may affect the employee’s ability to perform the essential job duties. This process is referred to as an interactive process. It entails a good-faith effort by the employer and the employee to discuss the limitations and/or performance issues the employee’s disability may pose. The purpose of this discussion is to determine what (if any) accommodations may be needed.

Review the accommodation request from the employee or his or her health care provider. While the ADA does not require the request to be put in writing, having documentation of the request is a good practice.

Obtain written medical release or permission from the employee. The employee’s health care provider may not disclose information or answer questions about the employee’s disability without the employee’s permission.

Ask the employee to provide appropriate documentation from the employee’s health care or rehabilitation professional regarding the nature of the impairment, its severity, the duration, the activities limited by the impairment(s) and the extent to which the impairment(s) limits the employee’s ability to perform the job’s essential duties/functions. 

Step 5: Assess if the employee has a disability under the ADA and the ADAAA

Use the definition of a “disability” and a “qualified individual with a disability” under provisions of both the ADA and the ADAAA, along with information from the employee’s health care provider, to help make this determination.

  • The ADA defines a disability as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) and/or the employee having a record of having such impairment (such as an employee who is in recovery from cancer) OR (3) being regarded as having an impairment.

  • According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the ADAAA indicated that there are impairments that would automatically be considered disabilities. They include (but are not limited to): deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, completely or partially missing limbs, mobility impairments that require the use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy, major depression, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

  • The definition of major life activities has been expanded to include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working, among others. A broader definition of major bodily functions was added and includes functions of the immune system; normal cell growth; and digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions, among others.

  • The definition of a disability also includes situations in which an employer takes an action prohibited by the ADA based on an actual or perceived impairment—for example, removing from customer contact a bank teller who has severe facial scars because customers may feel uncomfortable working with this disfigured employee or may perceive the employee as having an impairment when, in fact, he or she does not.

  • The ADAAA directs that if a “mitigating measure,” such as medication, medical equipment, devices, prosthetic limbs or low vision devices, eliminates or reduces the symptoms or impact of the impairment, that fact cannot be used in determining if a person meets the definition of having a disability. Instead, the determination of disability should focus on whether the individual would be substantially limited in performing a major life activity without the mitigating measure. This rule, however, does not apply to people who wear ordinary eye glasses or contact lenses.

  • The following are not disabilities under the ADA or ADAAA: transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, other sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.

Consider whether the impairment substantially limits a person’s ability to “work” or meet certain job-related requirements, even though the impairment may not impose substantial limitations outside the workplace. For example, the employee may still be able to operate his or her personal motor vehicle but may be limited in his or her ability to perform the essential job duty of operating and driving a commercial truck, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In this case, the ADA recognizes this employee as having a disability.

Employers may feel uncertain about whether an employee has a disability. Frequently, this is a judgment call unless there are observable impairments that affect the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job or there is reliable information from the employee’s health care provider. When the disability is not apparent or observable, the employer may ask the individual about the disability and functional limitations in light of the employee’s request for accommodation. This discussion is usually a part of the interactive process outlined in Step 4.

Review all of these factors to determine if there is a disability that needs to be accommodated.

Step 6: Determine accommodations

The ADA does not require employers to have a particular policy and procedure in place for determining or granting reasonable accommodations, but it does recommend that employers develop their own policy meaningful to employees and the organization. Refer back to Step 2 for a sample policy and procedure.

An accommodation can be a change or modification to the workplace, allowing the employee with a disability to perform his or her essential job duties and/or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. Examples include job restructuring, reassignment or transfer to a vacant position, making existing facilities more readily accessible, modifying or using alternative work schedules, acquiring or changing equipment or devices, adjusting training materials or using interpreters for the hearing- and/or visually impaired.

Reasonable accommodations can vary in price and scope. Some are free or low-cost, such as a change in work schedule, granting extended unpaid leave or telecommuting. Others may be more costly, such as installing an elevator or modifying restrooms.

The types of accommodations needed and provided will depend on the limitations of the disability and the individual employee’s ability to perform the essential job duties of the position. One standardized type of accommodation may not meet the needs of employees who have similar disabilities but different impairments/limitations when performing their essential job functions. Accommodations are designed to meet the specific circumstances of the individual.

The Job Accommodation Network is an organization that can assist employers in the accommodation process with information and accommodation ideas. Its consultative services are free to employers.

Review the accommodation request from the employee or health care provider to determine whether the requested accommodation would create an undue hardship to the employer (see Step 7 below). Suggest alternatives to the requested accommodations if the initial request creates an undue burden, but there is another cost-effective way to provide the needed accommodation.

Continue the interactive process until you find the accommodation(s) that meets the needs of the employee and does not create an undue hardship on the employer.

Obtain verification from the employee and his or her health care provider that the agreed-upon accommodation will not worsen the employee’s disability or cause other problems.

Select and document specific accommodations that will be made.

Step 7: Determine if the accommodation is “reasonable” or creates an “undue burden”

Employers should be careful when using the undue burden or hardship defense as a rationale to not accommodate an ADA/ADAAA request.

  • The EEOC, when determining if the employee request creates an undue burden to the employer, looks not only at the cost of the particular accommodation but the financial stability of a company. If the company is making significant profits or has a sizable net worth, the employer may not be able to prove that the requested accommodation would have a significant financial impact, therefore creating an undue hardship. For example, it may be an undue hardship for a nonprofit organization with limited funds to provide a special chair that costs $1,000 as an accommodation to an employee. However, the same request by an employee working in a for-profit organization that made sizable profits may not be seen as an undue hardship for that employer.

  • Accommodations that could result in an undue hardship include modifications that are “unduly extensive or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the job or business,” according to the EEOC. For example, small employers that require their employees to be able to perform a number of different jobs and tasks may not find it feasible or cost-effective to provide job restructuring as a “reasonable accommodation,” whereas in larger organizations, this may be a free or low-cost option.

  • The EEOC does not see the impact on employee morale as a reasonable undue hardship defense.

Obtain input from the supervisor who has knowledge about the duties of the position and the worksite to help determine the feasibility and what may be a “reasonable” accommodation.

Massive modifications/restructuring to the essential job duties so that the position no longer resembles its purpose are also not considered reasonable--for instance, removing driving duties from a truck driver.

Step 8: Notify the employee

Notify the employee in writing that his or her requested accommodation has been approved or denied. Be sure to include details of the accommodation and the anticipated start date.

Maintain all copies of accommodation requests, supporting medical information and documentation, including denials, in a file separate from the employee personnel file, consistent with the confidentiality requirements of the ADA.

Step 9: Review and modify

Remember that the accommodation process is not set in stone and may need to be reviewed, especially if an employee's disability changes or the needs of the business change.

Example 1

An employee with more than five years of clerk typist experience has been working with your company for six months. Upon hire, she stated she could perform all the essential job duties as outlined in the company job description. Lately, she has been complaining about wrist pain. Her doctor diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome due to the repetitive nature of the job. The doctor recommends that the employee cut back her work hours to prevent her medical condition from worsening. The doctor provided the employee with a note for her employer.

The employee approached her supervisor and asked to work a reduced schedule. Based on the company policy and procedure (Steps 1 and 2), the supervisor starts the interactive process (Step 4) by reviewing the employee request and determining if her accommodation request is “reasonable” (Steps 6 and 7).

The supervisor recommends approval of the request because there is currently an available part-time position the employee can be reassigned to. The employee’s written accommodation request is forwarded to HR for final approval. HR reviews the employee request, the doctor’s note, ADA definitions of who is a qualified individual with a disability, along with the supervisory recommendation (Steps 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7).

HR informs the employee that her request has been approved (Step 8). According to the company’s ADA policy and procedure, the employee is given a memo documenting the request and approved accommodation. HR files all this information and related documentation in a separate ADA file which is kept apart from the employee's personnel file.

Example 2

An employee who is morbidly obese and has knee problems recently returned to work after taking Family and Medical Leave Act leave. She has been released to work without restrictions. Her manager reports performance problems. The employee attributes her performance problems to medication she is taking in order to walk (Steps 3 and 5). In addition, she is taking muscle relaxants and has been unable to sleep more than two hours a night.

The employee is asked to provide documentation from her doctor to support her statements that her disability and its related medications are affecting her at work and indicate any potential reasonable accommodations. The employee provides a note from her doctor with a recommendation that she be permitted to work from home, allowing her to limit driving and walking. The doctor also asks that employee’s hours be adjusted (Steps 4 and 6).

Even though the employee was initially returned without restrictions, further questions uncovered that an accommodation would be necessary. After reviewing the essential job duties, gap analysis and the accommodation suggestions, the manager and HR agree to allow the employee to work from home and adjust her work hours. To be consistent with the company telecommuting policy, the employee’s performance will be reviewed within 30 days, and if her performance does not improve, her telecommuting privileges may be revoked.

According to the company’s ADA policy and procedure, the employee is given a memo documenting the request and approved accommodation. HR files all this information and related documentation in a separate ADA file, which is kept apart from the employee's personnel file (Step 8).