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A Guide to Understanding Reasonable Workplace Accommodations


Disability Sign


The ADA Interactive Process is a critical component of identifying and providing reasonable workplace accommodations. This guide provides a comprehensive overview to help you understand and navigate how to provide workplace accommodations effectively and compliantly.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important tool in promoting equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in various areas of life, including employment, education, and public accommodations.

An essential component of the ADA is the interactive process, a collaborative effort between an employer and an employee with a disability to determine what workplace accommodations may be necessary to enable the employee to perform their essential job functions.

This process can seem complex, but it is essential for ensuring employees with disabilities have equal opportunities in the workplace.

In this comprehensive guide, we provide an overview of the ADA, the interactive process, and best practices on how to navigate workplace accommodations effectively.


Who is Covered by the ADA? 

The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and to employees with disabilities who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, hearing, seeing, or learning. Under the ADA, the impairment must be chronic or expected to last at least six months to be considered a disability.

In addition to protecting individuals with disabilities, the ADA also protects individuals who have a record of a disability or who are regarded as having a disability.

Examples of this may include:

  1. An employee who previously had cancer but is now in remission
  2. An employee who is regarded as having a disability, such as a mental health condition
  3. An employee who has a history of a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety


What is the ADA Interactive Process?

The ADA requires employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities in the workplace.

Employers are required to participate in the ADA interactive process when an employee or job applicant requests a reasonable accommodation due to a disability. The process involves a back-and-forth dialogue between employer and employee to identify potential accommodations that would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of their job.

Once a reasonable accommodation has been identified and provided, employers must continue to engage in the process as needed to ensure that the employee’s needs have not changed and are continuing to be met.


How Does the ADA Interactive Process Work?

The ADA interactive process typically begins when an employee with a disability requests an accommodation from their employer.

This request does not need to be formally made, and the employee does not need to use precise terminology, such as the ADA or the phrase “reasonable accommodation.” The employee simply must let their supervisor know that they are having a problem, and the problem is related to a medical condition. It is up to the employer to determine if the employee is making a request for an accommodation.

Once a request has been identified, the supervisor should document the request. From there, the employer should engage in an informal, two-way dialogue with the employee to determine the limitations caused by the disability, the essential functions of the job, and the potential accommodations that would enable the employee to perform those functions.

The process should be kept interactive, meaning that both the employer and employee participate in the discussion and communicate honestly and openly throughout.


What are the Key Steps in the Interactive Process?

The interactive process can look different in different situations, but the key steps generally include:

  1. The employee requests an accommodation, whether verbally or in writing
  2. The employer engages in a dialogue with the employee to determine the nature of the disability, the limitations it imposes, and possible accommodations.
  3. The employer evaluates the effectiveness and feasibility of each accommodation and determines which accommodation is most appropriate and implements it.
  4. The employer follows up with the employee to ensure the accommodation is effective in helping the employee perform their job. If not, the employer and employee should engage in the interactive process again to determine appropriate adjustments.


Can Employers Deny a Request for a Reasonable Accommodation?

An employer may deny a request for a reasonable accommodation if they can prove that it would cause undue hardship.

Undue hardship is defined by the ADA as an action that requires significant difficulty or expense when considering the size, financial resources, and nature of the business.

It is important to note that the undue hardship standard is a high bar, and employers are generally expected to make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees with disabilities.

To demonstrate undue hardship, an employer must show that providing the requested accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense. It is important that employers document the interactive process followed and the accommodations considered. Generalized or speculative statements about the cost or burden of an accommodation are not considered sufficient.


What Are Some Common Challenges and Best Practices for Navigating ADA Accommodations?

Navigating workplace accommodations can be difficult for both employers and employees. Some common challenges include a lack of understanding of the interactive process, a lack of communication between the employer and employee, disagreements over what accommodations are reasonable and effective, and concerns over the cost and feasibility of accommodations.

To overcome these challenges, employers should make sure they educate themselves and their employees on the ADA and the interactive process. Employers should include an ADA Policy in their Employee Handbook to ensure that all employees have read and have access to the policy, and should provide training to their managers so they know how to identify and process a request for a reasonable accommodation.

Additional best practices include providing clear communication channels for employees who need to make a request, involving a neutral third-party if necessary, and regularly reviewing and updating accommodations as needed.

The ADA is a critical tool for ensuring that individuals with disabilities have equal access to employment opportunities. By following key steps and best practices, employers and employees can work together to identify and implement accommodations that benefit both the employee and the employer.


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