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 accommodation.
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:
Remember: Positive relationships are a most important asset on the job.
Job restructuring as a form of reasonable accommodation may involve reallocating or redistributing the marginal functions of a job. Job restructuring frequently is accomplished by exchanging marginal functions of a job that cannot be performed by a person with a disability for marginal job functions performed by one or more other employees. An employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, but where it is possible to remove certain non-essential tasks from an employee’s work requirements, this should be done.
It may be a reasonable accommodation to change when or how the essential functions are done. These include:
Changing a regular work schedule or establishing a flexible leave policy may be a reasonable accommodation unless it would cause an undue hardship. Modified work schedules may include flexibility in work hours or the work week, or part-time work.
Flexible leave policies should be considered as a reasonable accommodation when people with disabilities require time off from work because of their disabilities. The agency is generally not required to provide additional paid leave as an accommodation, but should consider allowing use of accrued leave or leave without pay, where this will not cause an undue hardship.
People with disabilities may require flexible leave because of:
Some qualified people with disabilities are unable to work a standard 9 am to 5 pm workday, or a standard Monday to Friday work week. Depending on the nature of the work assignment and operational requirements, changes to work schedules and hours may be a reasonable accommodation as long as it does not result in an undue hardship.
Purchase of equipment or changes to existing equipment may be effective accommodations for people with many types of disabilities. There are many devices that make it possible for people to overcome existing barriers to performing functions of a job. These devices range from very simple solutions, such as an elastic band that can enable a person with cerebral palsy to hold a pencil and write, to “high-tech” electronic equipment that can be operated by head or mouth movements by people who cannot use their hands.
The agency is only obligated to provide equipment that is needed to perform a job; there is no obligation to provide equipment that the individual uses regularly in daily life, such as glasses, a hearing aid or a wheelchair. The agency may be obligated to provide items of this nature if special adaptations are required to perform a job.
Reasonable accommodation should be provided, when needed, to give employees with disabilities equal opportunity to benefit from training to perform their jobs effectively and to advance in employment. Needed accommodations may include providing:
Policy modifications may include:
Employment activities must take place in an integrated setting. Employees with disabilities may not be segregated into particular facilities or parts of facilities. This means that architectural barriers may have to be removed or altered to provide structural accessibility to the workplace. However, the agency is not required to make structural changes that are unreasonable and would impose an undue hardship.
In existing structures, structural changes are necessary to the extent that they will allow an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job, including access to work stations, and normal support facilities such as bathrooms, water fountains, and lunchrooms.
Non-structural changes are allowed instead of structural changes if they achieve the same result. Examples include:
Individuals with communication disabilities (e.g., vision, hearing, and speech disabilities) should be able to communicate effectively with others as needed for their job duties and should have access to information needed for the job. Identifying the needs of the employee in relation to specific job tasks will determine whether or when an interpreter, reader, or other communication access provider may be needed.
It may be a reasonable accommodation to provide a reader for a qualified individual with a vision disability, if this would not impose an undue hardship. In some job situations a reader may be the most effective and efficient accommodation, but in other situations equipment may enable an individual with a vision disability to perform job tasks more accurately.
Communication access providers (e.g., sign language interpreter or real time captioner) as needed may be a reasonable accommodation for a person who is deaf if this does not impose an undue hardship.
Example: A deaf person applies for a job as a Clerk-Typist. It may be necessary to obtain a qualified interpreter for a job interview because the applicant and interviewer must communicate fully and effectively to evaluate whether the applicant is qualified to do the job. Once hired, however, if the employee is doing clerical work, computer applications, or other job tasks that do not require much verbal communication, an interpreter may only be needed occasionally. Interpretation may be necessary for training situations, staff meetings or employee parties, so that this person can fully participate in these functions. Communication on the job may be handled through different means, depending on the situation, such as written notes, “signing” by other employees who have received basic sign language training, or by typing on a computer.
Providing an assistant as needed may be a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability if this does not impose an undue hardship. Examples include:
Once an accommodation is approved, it should be implemented as soon as possible.
Within 4 - 6 weeks after the accommodations have been granted, the agency should assess the effectiveness of the accommodation(s) in enabling the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. If there is a need for additional accommodation or changes to the existing accommodations, the agency should reevaluate the accommodations.
If the accommodations are not effective and there are no other methods of accommodation that can assist the employee in performing the essential functions of the job, then the accommodation of reassignment to a vacant position within the agency or within District government will be discussed.
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