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Reasonable Accommodations

Learn how reasonable accommodations help ensure productivity of all employees. 

Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications that enable people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of a job efficiently and productively. In this way, they are important retention and advancement tools. Reasonable accommodations may also be necessary to assist a person with a disability to apply and interview for a job. 

Accommodations vary depending upon the nature of the job and the needs of the applicant or employee. Not all people with disabilities (or even all people with the same disability) will require the same accommodation or any accommodation. Furthermore, research by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) indicates that approximately half of accommodations cost nothing at all.

A best practice related to accommodations is the establishment of a centralized accommodation program (CAP), which consolidates in a single office or location subject matter expertise necessary to assess, evaluate and select effective and meaningful accommodations. A CAP may also consolidate funding streams for some or all accommodations at a level removed from the department or unit in which the employee is working.

Examples of Reasonable Accommodations

Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to:

  • Job restructuring such as altering when and/or how an essential function of a job is performed or reallocating marginal job functions that an employee is unable to perform because of a disability.
  • Modifying work schedules to allow an employee with a disability to attend to matters related to treating the disability, such as attending medical and physical therapy appointments or medication schedules.
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices such as adjusting a desk height to accommodate an employee who uses a wheelchair or providing an employee with quadriplegia a mouth stick device to type on their computer.
  • Adjusting or modifying tests and training materials, for example, providing materials in alternate formats, such as braille, CD or large print.
  • Providing assistive technology or devices such as computer screen readers for employees with visual impairments or a specific telephone that is compatible with an employee’s hearing aid (this does not include personal assistive devices such as hearing aids or prosthetics).
  • Reassigning an employee with a disability to a vacant position for which he or she is qualified when no longer able to perform the essential functions of the current job with or without reasonable accommodations. This accommodation is available only for incumbent workers.

For examples of common accommodations for specific disabilities, visit JAN’s Accommodation Information by Disability: A-Z.

Making Reasonable Accommodations

  • Providing Accommodations: An employer generally does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation unless a person with a disability has asked for one. Once a request is made, the employer must engage in an interactive process.
  • Selecting an Accommodation: Where more than one accommodation would work, an employer may choose the one that is less costly or that is easier to provide.
  • Undue Hardship: An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee as long as it does not impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. An accommodation may impose an undue hardship if it requires significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer’s size, financial resources (including the resources of the parent company) and the nature and structure of its operation.
  • Essential Job Functions: An employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation. Employees are expected to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations.
  • Cost of Accommodations: The cost of providing an accommodation is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Various studies have found that reasonable accommodations cost much less than many employers expect.

Receiving Requests for Accommodations

An applicant or employee may request a reasonable accommodation at any time during the employment cycle if they have a disability and cannot fully participate in the application process or perform the essential function(s) of the job. A request for a workplace adjustment qualifies as a request for reasonable accommodation if the change is requested for a reason related to his/her disability.

To request an accommodation, employees:

  • Do not need to use medical terminology or explain their disability/condition (they may use “plain English”).
  • May ask for a workplace adjustment without specifically referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or using the words “accommodation” or “reasonable accommodation.”
  • Should specify that the request is related to a disability.
  • May ask a third party to request the accommodation on their behalf (medical professional, vocational rehabilitation counselor, job coach, etc.).

Responding to Requests for Reasonable Accommodations

Following an accommodation request, the employer and the person should engage in an interactive process to identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. If a manager or direct supervisor receives an accommodation request, he or she should refer the employee to HR or another person who is responsible for responding to such requests. The person receiving the accommodations request may:

  • Ask questions that will enable him/her to make an informed decision about how to meet the request. Including:
    • What type of accommodation is the employee requesting?
    • What is the nature of the employee’s disability/functional limitation?
  • Request documentation of the disability from an appropriate professional.
  • Do further research on the ADA or reasonable accommodations.
    • Determine whether the employee’s condition is covered under the ADA.
    • Contact JAN for guidance on the types of accommodations that might best meet the needs of the employee and organization.
  • Refer the employee to the appropriate person within the organization, if there is a designated staff member who handles accommodations requests, and then follow up with both to ensure the request is adequately addressed.

Implementing Reasonable Accommodations

There are no specific policies or procedures that employers must follow when trying to accommodate an employee with a disability, but requests must be made within a reasonable time. It is also advisable to communicate with employees regarding progress made in providing the accommodation especially if it may take some time. The accommodations process is most effective when:

  • It is focused on essential job tasks and the physical or cognitive functions necessary to complete them, not on the employee’s disability.
  • Employees are asked to suggest the type of accommodations that may be most effective to ensure their productivity.
  • Employers customize positions to capitalize on the strengths and creativity of the employee.

Formal Accommodations Process

Some employers opt to establish formal accommodations policies and procedures and to centralize this function.  Some of the benefits of having a formal policy include:

  • Increased likelihood that accommodation requests will be handled properly and consistently.
  • Improved documentation of an employer’s efforts to comply with the ADA.
  • Improved understanding among employees about what to expect if they request an accommodation.
  • Reduction in the direct cost to departments of accommodations through the creation of a centralized fund, which may thereby reduce disincentives to provide an accommodation.