Understanding Your Rights: A Guide to Requesting Disability Accommodations at Work 

Pictured: A collage of different disabilities/Makkuro_GL/ Adobe Stock

Pictured: A collage of different disabilities/Makkuro_GL/ Adobe Stock

For employees with a medical condition that makes it difficult to perform aspects of their job, it may be time to talk with their employer about whether their role can be modified in some way—what’s known as a reasonable accommodation for a disability.  

There’s no time limit on requesting such accommodations, Kevin Abbott, a lawyer at Fennemore Law in California who defends employers in employment and labor-related disputes, told BioSpace.  

And for private sector employers with 15 or more workers, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits retaliating against employees who request accommodations for a disability by, for example, firing or demoting them. Federal employees have similar protections, but under a separate law, the Rehabilitation Act. 

What Qualifies as a Disability?  

Under the ADA, there is “'an expansive view as to what is a disability,” including not only physical but also mental conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, Anita Mazumdar Chambers, a principal at The Employment Law Group in Washington, D.C., told BioSpace.

Symptoms such as back pain may also qualify, particularly if a medical provider can tie it to a pre-existing condition, injury, surgery or diagnosis, she said. 

Prior to requesting accommodation, Chambers recommended touching base with the human resources department to learn about the company’s process for doing so. She also said it’s a good idea for workers to bring their job description to their physician and discuss which aspects of their jobs they can and can’t perform, then have the doctor provide documentation of their limitations. 

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), requests can be verbal and need not be in a particular format or use particular terminology. But Chambers said it’s best for employees to document the initial request by putting it in writing.

Once an employer receives a request, they may require employees to complete certain paperwork and/or provide documentation of their condition. 

The ADA mandates that once an employer receives a disability accommodation request, they must begin an “interactive process” with the employee to try to find a modification to the employee’s job that allows them to continue in their role, without presenting an “undue hardship” for the employer.  

Possible accommodations, according to the federally funded ADA Network, include providing or adjusting equipment or software, changing the job tasks and allowing a flexible work schedule. 

Abbott said he advises clients to find ways to come to a solution around reasonable accommodation requests, if possible. Chambers said there’s no clear line between reasonable accommodations and those that an employer could legally refuse, as what is reasonable depends on the particular circumstances of the company and the job, and whether the accommodation would present an undue burden for the employer.  

For example, while allowing an employee whose work is entirely computer-based to telecommute would likely be reasonable, she said, that probably wouldn’t be the case for a healthcare worker whose job description includes performing in-person patient care. Moving a disabled employee to a different role within the company should be a last resort, according to the EEOC. 

Much like current employees requesting accommodations, job candidates are legally protected from disability-based discrimination by employers during the hiring process. Abbott said that whether a person broaches the subject of disability accommodations during the hiring process  or once already onboard, “it certainly doesn’t change the employer’s obligation to entertain that and accommodate that.”  

If an employer refuses an accommodation and does not have a basis for asserting an undue hardship, the employee may have a failure to accommodate claim under state and/or federal law, Chambers said. They can contact a lawyer for help filing such a charge, and to discuss the possibility of filing a claim later on. 

According to Chambers, whether to disclose a need for accommodation to a potential employer depends on an individual’s preference. If candidates do decide to disclose a disability during the hiring process, “I think it’s important to emphasize that they can still do the essential job duties with an accommodation,” she said. 

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