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The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability.  An employer must make an accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it would not impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer’s size, financial resources and the nature and structure or its operation. An employer is not required to lower production or quality standards, nor provide personal use items such as glasses or hearing aids.

Workplace barriers may prohibit disabled individuals from performing jobs that they could do with some form of accommodation. Barriers may include physical obstacles, or they may be procedures or rules. Reasonable accommodations remove workplace barriers for individuals with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations may include changes to application process, changes to the work environment or to the way a job is usually done, or changes to enable an employee to enjoy equal privileges and benefits of employment

Examples of reasonable accommodations include the following:

  1. Job restructuring (shifting minor responsibilities to others, altering when/how a task is performed).
  2. Making existing facilities regularly used by employees readily accessible.
  3. Providing additional unpaid leave, when it is not an undue hardship. Paid leave is not required, and an employer is not required to grant leave when it can make another accommodation that will allow the employee to keep working, such as a temporary transfer to another position.
  4. Modified or part-time schedule.
  5. Modifying workplace policy.
  6. Re-assignment to a vacant position – The employee must be qualified for the position. The employer is not required to create a new job or bump an employee out of a position. The employer does not have to offer a promotion. The re-assignment should be to a position that has equal pay and status, but if a comparable position is not vacant the employer may assign the employee to a vacant position with lower pay if the employee meets the job qualifications.[1]

Examples of things that are NOT considered reasonable accommodations:

  1. Elimination of a primary job responsibility (an “essential function” of the position).
  2. Lowering production standards (but an employer may be required to make accommodations to allow disabled employees to meet the standards).
  3. Providing personal use items such as wheelchairs, eyeglasses, hearing aids or similar devices.

There is no formal way that a request for a reasonable accommodation must be made.  The individual need only make known to the employer that he or she needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. The person can use plain English, and need not mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.” Requests need not be in writing, but the employer may want to confirm the request in writing by letter or memorandum.

When the disability or need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask for reasonable documentation about the disability and functional limitations. The employer and the individual should work together informally to determine what the individual needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. The employer may ask the individual questions to help make an informed decision, including what type of accommodation is needed. There are extensive public and private resources to assist employers and individuals with disabilities who are not familiar with possible accommodations.

The employer may choose among reasonable accommodations as long as the chosen accommodation is effective (i.e., it removes the workplace barrier at issue). The employer may suggest alternative accommodations, and the employer may choose the less expensive alternative or the one that is easier to provide. The employer is not required to give the employee the accommodation that the individual wants. Similarly, the employee is not required to accept the accommodation offered by the employer; however, as long as the accommodation offered by the employer is reasonable and effective, the employer has fulfilled his or her obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation.

[1] See, e.g., Hedrick v. Western Reserve Care System, 355 F.3d 444 (6th Cir. 2004).