Workplace Discrimination: What Qualifies as Reasonable Accommodation?

By Adrian Johansen

What every American should know is that every employer in the U.S.—from small, mom-and-pop businesses to giant corporations—is bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and rules created by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). If you have a disability, then you have rights that go beyond anti-discrimination law. Your employer needs to find ways to accommodate you so that you can do your job safely and comfortably.

These rules fall under the umbrella of reasonable accommodation, a vague legal term. What does reasonable accommodation mean, and what is available to you? We created a quick guide for you to help empower you to ask for what you need at work.

What the ADA Says About Reasonable Accommodation

The ADA specifically states that an employer is required to make a "reasonable accommodation" for workers who fall under ADA protection as long as doing so doesn't create an "unnecessary hardship" for the employer. What does that mean in the real world? Is it a real mandate or is it a strange loophole?

Reasonable accommodation under the ADA is a change of position or provision of assistance that allows a worker to perform their basic duties with a disability. A few examples of accommodations include raising or lowering the height of a desk or using telecommunications devices that cater to workers with hearing impairments. It can also involve a restructuring of job duties. For example, if a worker can complete all but one or two of their duties, it's a reasonable accommodation to either re-assign said duty or change it so the worker can complete it.

Other examples include:

  • Allowing for a shorter workday or week
  • Modifying training or exam materials or delivery
  • Offering unpaid leave for medical care
  • Transferring employees to a new location for better care

There is plenty of room for nuance within 'reasonable accommodation.' For example, if you work in the accounting office of a bread factory and find out you have a severe wheat allergy, your employer isn't required to get rid of wheat. Instead, you would need to find an intervention that allows you to protect yourself from traces of allergens where possible. You can request protective gear to visit the work floor and keep any work jackets and coats out of the accounting office to minimize contact with wheat. Your employer doesn't need to get rid of the allergen, but they do have an obligation to protect you from it if possible.

The ADA isn't prescriptive: it shouldn't be. Every employee, every disability, and every job is different. There's no way to put them all into a box. While some employers use this as a way to avoid accommodating their staff, it also offers an opportunity to get the modifications that best serve you.

The True Cost of Reasonable Accommodation

Employers carry a lot of power, particularly among workers with disabilities. Losing your job means losing your benefits and health insurance, and it can be physically, emotionally and financially devastating in equal measure for workers and their families. The big objection employers have right off the bat to accommodations is cost, and it can stop you from asking for what you need if you're afraid that your employer might try to fire you.

It's important for workers to know that in most cases, reasonable accommodations cost little to nothing. According to experts in the field, 58% of the accommodations made cost $0. The rest proved to cost around just $500.

In other words, if your place of work is already ADA compliant, then there's no reason not to ask for further accommodation. Not only is it your right, but the likelihood of it being more than a blip on your employer's finances is fairly minimal. If your employer denies you, then they need to prove to the EEOC that the accommodation is an undue hardship, and proving this is very difficult. Not only will going to court be expensive, but the court will highlight the list of available deductions, credits, and grants available that reduce the cost of the project.

Thinking Outside the Box to Make Work Equitable

The ADA and EEOC only go so far in making the workplace fair. They make it illegal to discriminate, but they don't mandate equality, either. Thankfully, modern technology makes it easier than ever to hunt down creative reasonable accommodations that can suit both employers and employees.

Assistive technology is critical to helping people with many different types of disabilities navigate their work. Today, assistive technology is also more plentiful, helpful, and available than ever. For example, you can use free screen readers or invest in relatively inexpensive readers like JAWS for further integration. Screen magnification software also exists and can make it easy for workers with vision loss to customize their screens for their needs. There's even an Xbox adaptive controller to make gaming more accessible: you can even use your controllers with a PC.

Technology also allows workplaces to go further in protecting employees. For example, employees with ADHD have protection under the ADA, but there were few interventions available to them in the past. Absenteeism is an issue for many with an ADHD diagnosis, which makes it harder to keep a job. Today, people with ADHD can work shorter workweeks or work remotely to choose an environment that they find more conducive to concentrating or being creative. Workplace tools also allow managers to manage from afar, which gives employees more freedom to manage their own time. Many people with ADHD find they react badly to other people's sense of management rather than their own.

Ultimately, if you need help fulfilling your job role or you're perfect for a new job, but there are a few things that just don't jive with your needs, then your employer has an obligation to help. So, don't be afraid to ask! Your perspective can even improve working conditions for your colleagues.

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