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What Does "Reasonable" Mean? – A Deconstructive Series for ADA Terminology

Information on the definition of reasonable

From the desk of Matthew McCord, M.S., CRC, Consultant – Mobility Team

A common question we discuss often here at JAN is whether or not any given accommodation would be considered a reasonable accommodation. There are many different examples of what a reasonable accommodation can be. Some possibilities include: schedule modifications, purchasing assistive technologies, and restructuring the duties of the job. You can find many more accommodation examples on our A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations page. Although these examples are helpful, they do not help answer the fundamental question of what makes a reasonable accommodation “reasonable.” To that end, let’s discuss this by breaking it down into simple terms.

Before we begin, we need to discuss what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said on this topic. Under the General Principles section of the EEOC document titled, Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act it states:

“A modification or adjustment is "reasonable" if it "seems reasonable on its face, i.e., ordinarily or in the run of cases;"(8) this means it is "reasonable" if it appears to be "feasible" or "plausible."(9) An accommodation also must be effective in meeting the needs of the individual.(10) In the context of job performance, this means that a reasonable accommodation enables the individual to perform the essential functions of the position. Similarly, a reasonable accommodation enables an applicant with a disability to have an equal opportunity to participate in the application process and to be considered for a job. Finally, a reasonable accommodation allows an employee with a disability an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment that employees without disabilities enjoy.”

With this information in mind, let’s take it in more manageable pieces and describe what each part means. Afterwards, we will discuss if an otherwise reasonable accommodation can be considered unreasonable.

“Seems reasonable on its face…”

This piece of the description directs us to view the determination from a bird’s eye view. It intends for us to review the accommodation being requested without weighing all of the details of the request or how the request will impact the employer. A helpful method I suggest is to look at the situation as though you are an outsider looking in. For instance, would you think it would be reasonable for someone with a sleeping disorder to work a consistent shift rather than a rotating shift that exacerbates their sleeping limitations? If it seems reasonable from an outsider’s perspective, then it is a good indication that it meets this piece of the description.

Must be effective in meeting the needs of the individual

While the previous portion directs us to not consider the details of the request, this part discusses how the accommodation being reviewed needs to genuinely be an accommodation that will be beneficial to the individual’s disability-related needs. This normally will be obvious for accommodations that are specifically requested by the individual or their physician, as they wouldn’t be suggesting them if they didn’t believe they would be effective. However, employers have the right to review options. So, if options other than the requested accommodation are being considered, remember that employers have an obligation to put forth a good faith effort to provide an accommodation that will be genuinely beneficial to the individual in overcoming the workplace barrier involved.

Equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment

It is common for people to understand the importance of providing accommodations to enable an employee to perform the essential functions of the position. After all, an employee may not be qualified for the position if he cannot perform the essential functions of that position with or without reasonable accommodations. Despite this importance, it is not the only situation where accommodations need to be considered. Individuals with disabilities have the right to partake in all aspects of employment, from application to advancement, which involves much more than the day to day duties that they must perform in their position. They also have the right to attend and enjoy things like employer sponsored events or company parties. So, it is important to be mindful of the fact that accommodations must be provided to enable someone with a disability to be able to enjoy all of the various benefits and privileges of employment. Even if it is something as simple as modifying the menu of a company sponsored dinner or choosing a different venue to have that dinner within.

When does a reasonable accommodation become unreasonable?

The answer to this question can vary depending on what source you are drawing information from. Some sources say that if a particular accommodation is not effective for the individual’s specific needs or if the accommodation poses an undue hardship for the company, the accommodation is still considered a “reasonable” accommodation.  They see it as something that describes what an employer might have to do to meet the disability-related needs of any given individual. However, other sources say that an accommodation that poses an undue hardship on an employer or an accommodation that is not effective at meeting the individual’s disability-related needs, is an “unreasonable” accommodation. The important thing to keep in mind here is that in most cases this distinction may not matter. In the event of an EEOC complaint, if the individual can show that an effective form of accommodation was possible, then the employer would have to objectively prove why they did not provide that accommodation.