Managing ADA Accommodation Requests

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Audra Hedberg, PHR, PHRca, SHRM-SCP Photo

6 minutes

A framework for qualifying requests and implementing accommodations determined to be appropriate

Download a PDF version of this guide.

This article provides employers with a framework for qualifying accommodation requests, applying the interactive process and implementing an accommodation if it is determined that one is appropriate. Please note that state and local laws with unique requirements may apply in addition to the ADA.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was established to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities. As part of the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations that enable a qualified person with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job. The accommodation may include adjustments to the job, equipment, procedures or work environment but must not present an undue hardship to the organization. According to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, an “undue hardship must be based on an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense.”

Visit the EEOC site for guidelines on assessing undue hardships.

Qualifications and Requirements

The ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees; however, the threshold is lower for some states. Title 1 of the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees or applicants with a qualifying disability unless it causes undue hardship to the business. Undue hardship is defined as a significant difficulty or expense, including how the accommodation will impact operations or disrupt the business.

A qualifying employee or applicant must have the skills to perform the essential functions of the job. Employers are not required to lower production standards or change essential functions of the job as a reasonable accommodation. For this reason, it is advisable to develop job descriptions that clearly outline the key responsibilities and requirements for a position. The individual making the request must have a mental or physical disability that substantially limits a major life activity. An employer may ask for documentation from a healthcare provider to confirm the need for accommodation.

It is essential for employers to have an adequate policy in place that outlines the process for requesting an ADA accommodation. Each request requires an interactive process, which involves a complex and thorough analysis with several factors to consider, including the overall financial resources of the organization and the impact of the accommodation.

Guidelines for the ADA Interactive Process

1. Initiate the ADA reasonable accommodation request. There are no “magic words” that an employee must use when initiating an accommodation request. In many cases, employees do not understand whether they qualify for an accommodation or how the process works. Employers must be proactive and recognize when an employee may need an accommodation, inform the employee and initiate the interactive process. As mentioned above, it is essential to include information on how to request an accommodation in the employee handbook. Trüpp offers a free accommodation request form.

2. Engage with the employee to understand the accommodation request. Employers are required to collaborate with the employee throughout the accommodation process. It is imperative to understand what accommodation the employee is asking for, discuss what a feasible accommodation looks like and work together to determine a solution. Remember to document everything as evidence of the interactive process. For verbal conversations, send a follow-up email or letter to summarize what was discussed and consider having an additional person involved in the discussions.

3. Gather the information needed to process the ADA accommodation request. In this step, the employer assesses the extent to which the impairment conflicts with the employee’s ability to perform the functions of their job. Gather the documentation required to determine if the employee has a qualifying disability. It’s essential to provide the employee with a medical certification form to be completed by a medical provider (here’s the one used by the National Institutes of Health; this is different from a standard FMLA WH-380 medical certification form. It is imperative to include an up-to-date copy of the employee’s job description, so the medical provider has sufficient information regarding the essential job functions. This should be done on a consistent basis for every accommodation request. 

This process, including collecting confidential medical information, should be handled by an HR professional and not the employee’s manager. Many accommodations are lifelong, but some, such as pregnancy-related accommodations, will have a determined timeline. Determine with the employee if the accommodation will be for a set amount of time or if it will be a permanent accommodation.

4. Determine whether the employee has a qualifying disability. Have a conversation with the employee about what is restricting them from performing their job functions. This conversation also should be between the employee and an HR professional, not the employee’s manager. If the employee mentions a medical condition, this is an indicator to request medical certification to get a medical professional’s input. There are no set rules; impairments do not need to be severe to qualify for an accommodation. Every request requires an individual assessment.

5. Determine what (if any) reasonable accommodations may be necessary. Set up a time to speak with the employee to review their request, medical certification and accommodation options the organization can provide. The accommodation should not cause undue hardship for the company. Once in place, the employee should be held to the same performance standards as other employees performing the same role.

After the interactive process is complete, provide a formal letter to the employee stating the approval or denial of the accommodation request. The letter should include the timeframe for the accommodation and when a check-in will occur, if required, to determine if the accommodation will continue. This information should also be added to the medical form. If the accommodation request has been denied, include an explanation. Get a signature from the employee and keep a copy in their personnel file.

Examples of Accommodations

  • A part-time or modified work schedule
  • Equipment modifications and improved accessibility
  • Job restructuring
  • Unpaid leave
  • Changes to the delivery of instructions, work orders and training materials
  • Provision of assistive services

Follow-up With the Employee

After an accommodation has been implemented, it is best practice to check in with the employee and ensure the accommodation is going well. There may be unanticipated consequences that result from the accommodation that will need to be resolved. An employee who has been granted an accommodation to work remotely, for example, may feel isolated or have difficulty getting timely responses from other teammates. Work routines or equipment modifications may need to be adjusted for safety. A follow-up check-in will help bring these concerns to your attention earlier and prevent further issues. 

All documentation collected during the accommodation process, including the approval or denial letter, should be stored in the employee’s personnel file.

Consider Outside Help With ADA Accommodation Requests

The accommodation process is very complex, and the legal guidelines are broad. Uncertainties or conflicts can leave your organization vulnerable. When a request cannot be resolved with clarity, it may be wise to bring in a competent third party to assist with the process. A qualified organization with an understanding of the ADA and the interactive process can provide objectivity, ensure a compliant resolution and significantly reduce employer risk.

Audra Hedberg, PHR, PHRca, SHRM-SCP, is VP/services for Trüpp, a CUES Supplier member based in Portland, Oregon. Hedberg has been an HR professional for over 17 years. She has a passion for helping clients thrive and enjoys providing guidance with employment law compliance in a relaxed style that is easy to understand.

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