From the desk of Tracie DeFreitas, M.S., Principal Consultant — ADA Specialist
The duty to engage in the interactive accommodation process under title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is triggered when a request for reasonable accommodation is received, or when an employer has a reasonable belief that an employee may need accommodation due to a known disability that is affecting job performance or the ability to access benefits and privileges of employment. Generally, the responsibility to request accommodation falls on the individual with the disability; employers are not expected to assume that someone has a disability or to guess what accommodations are needed. But, because the ADA doesn’t require that reasonable accommodation be requested in a formal way, or at a particular time, it can sometimes be difficult for employers to recognize a request and to know when to engage in the interactive process.
What is considered a request for accommodation under the ADA?
A request for accommodation doesn’t always come in the form of a letter that specifies an individual’s disability and need for accommodation. Sometimes the need for accommodation is alluded to during ordinary workplace conversations or is understood because an employee shares a note from a healthcare provider that excuses absences for a medical reason or places restrictions on an individual’s ability to perform certain job tasks. In many situations, there is no clear sign, no flashing light, indicating that the ADA is triggered. This is why it’s important for management staff and human resource professionals to be trained to recognize the flags. When an individual makes it known that an adjustment or change is needed at work, due to a medical reason, this is a request for accommodation under the ADA. There is a nexus between medical impairment or limitations and a work-related issue. Here are some examples:
- An employee who has arrived to work late several times in the past month is counseled regarding attendance. In response, she states, “I'm having difficulty getting to work on-time because of the side effects of medication I’m taking for a recently diagnosed medical condition.”
- An employee who was in a motor vehicle accident becomes paralyzed and returns to work using a wheelchair. On his first day back, he informs his manager that when he entered his workspace he realized that his wheelchair will not fit under his desk.
- A long-term employee who was recently diagnosed with cancer submits a note from her healthcare provider indicating the need for a leave of absence to receive chemotherapy treatments.
Situations like these can be interpreted as requests for accommodation under the ADA, and will trigger the interactive process.
What if it’s not clear that an individual is requesting accommodation?
Employers that are not sure whether an employee has requested an accommodation, may ask the employee to clarify what is being requested and why. This puts the onus on the individual to explain why they’ve mentioned a disability or asked for a change at work. Of course, situations may also arise when an employer has reason to believe that an accommodation is needed because of a known impairment, but the employee hasn’t formally disclosed a disability or requested anything at work. JAN staff frequently receive questions about whether employers may, must, or should ask employees if they need reasonable accommodation. Employers are often leery about asking if an accommodation is needed because the ADA includes rules that restrict employers from asking disability-related questions of employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers enforcement guidance on this topic. See questions 40 and 41 in Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA. JAN offers a practical approach to applying this particular guidance in an article entitled, Mother May I? Must I? Should I?
Instead of asking if an accommodation is needed or whether an individual has a disability that is affecting job performance, there is an alternative approach that employers might consider. Simply ask, How can I help? Asking this simple question can be a strategic way of creating a safe space for disability-disclosure and can be useful when accommodation has not been requested, but there is a known impairment and apparent limitations in performing job duties or meeting performance or conduct standards. This question doesn’t make employers vulnerable to appearing as if they are making assumptions about disability or the possible need for accommodation. Rather, asking – How can I help? is a smart practice for conveying support and the desire to be part of a solution to resolve a challenging situation.
Must accommodations be requested in a formal way?
Accommodation requests are not required to be formal or documented under the ADA. Meaning, an individual with a disability has no obligation to submit a request in writing, via e-mail, or to complete a required form. No federal government-issued or required ADA forms exist. Also, when making a request for accommodation, there is no requirement for the individual to assert their rights, to mention the ADA, or to include the term "reasonable accommodation." Of course, it can be useful to be as clear as possible about what is being requested and why, and to document an accommodation request in the event there is a dispute about whether or when a job accommodation was requested in connection with a disability.
Employers that would like to formalize the interactive process and document requests for accommodation can ask employees to complete an accommodation form when a request has not already been documented. The JAN service offers a customizable sample form for documenting an accommodation request. See Sample Reasonable Accommodation Request Form for Employers. For individuals seeking guidance on how to draft a letter to submit as a request for accommodation, JAN offers the How to Request an Accommodation: Accommodation Form Letter.
What is not a request for accommodation?
As important as it is to recognize a request for accommodation, employers must also know what is NOT considered a request for accommodation under the ADA. For example, when an applicant voluntarily self-identifies as an individual with a disability for affirmative action purposes under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act – this is not a request for accommodation. Or, when an employee discloses a disability, but there is no connection to a work-related barrier or specific request, this is not a request for accommodation. Remember, a nexus must exist between a medical impairment and a work-related barrier.
Also, a request for workplace adjustments or access to benefits and privileges already available to employees without disabilities is not necessarily a request for reasonable accommodation. For example, when employees are permitted to work a flexible schedule, or to work at home, then employees with disabilities should not be required to jump though extra hoops to receive the same workplace flexibility or privileges as those without disabilities. Now, if an individual with a disability requests access to something beyond the flexibility that is available to employees without disabilities, for a disability related reason, then this may be a request for accommodation. For example, at the discretion of management, employees may work at home one day a week. If an employee with a disability asks to work at home three days a week, for a disability-related reason, then this is a request for accommodation because the privilege of working at home is ordinarily limited to one day.
Recognizing an accommodation request is an important first step in the interactive accommodation process. When an employee indicates they are experiencing a work-related barrier and that barrier is related to an impairment or medical condition, consider whether the employee is making a request for accommodation under the ADA. The JAN staff offers practical guidance on making and recognizing requests for accommodation. For more information, Ask JAN. We can help!