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What Employers Can Do When They Cannot Identify an Effective Accommodation

Practical Strategies for Exploring Accommodations

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), covered employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. In many cases, effective accommodations are obvious or easy to identify with little effort. But occasionally, an employer may not be able to identify an appropriate accommodation even after making a good faith effort to do so. What can employers do if this happens to them?

A good starting point is to circle back to the employee, review any accommodations that have been tried so far, discuss why they were not effective, and ask the employee for any other ideas they might have.

If your employee is unable to offer additional accommodation ideas, another option is to use outside resources. There may be local resources such as vocational rehabilitation or a job coach who can assess the situation in person. There are also free outside resources such as JAN that can brainstorm ideas with you.

If there are accommodation options that you have not tried because you were not sure about them, consider a trial accommodation. Don’t forget that reassignment to a vacant job if the employee cannot be accommodated in the current job must be considered. If you want to go beyond the requirements of the ADA and consider creating a job for an employee, the ADA does not prohibit this approach.

If you are still unable to find an effective accommodation solution, you may wonder how long you should keep trying. When faced with this type of situation, we recommend that employers try a variety of accommodations to make sure the employee is getting the best opportunity to be successful on the job. There is no set amount of time after which employers are exempt from trying to come up with effective accommodations; instead, they must determine on a case-by-case basis whether ongoing efforts will create an undue hardship.

An undue hardship determination should involve an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense. This assessment should be based on several factors, including (but not limited to) the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, the overall financial resources of the facility, and the effect on expenses and resources of the facility. For example, would providing a reasonable accommodation be unduly disruptive to other employees' ability to work?

The following situations and solutions are real-life examples of accommodations that were made by JAN customers. Because accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis, these examples may not be effective for every workplace, but give you an idea about the types of accommodations that are possible.

Leah is a disabled employee on the autism spectrum with difficulties managing her anxiety. Leah’s job required her to troubleshoot computer issues for other employees. She became anxious when frustrated coworkers approached her in person or called with pointed questions about problems for her to fix. Her employer tried several different accommodations over time, including setting limited hours for complaints, flexible leave when she was overly anxious, and use of a headset so she could listen to calming music. None of the various accommodations were fully effective in reducing Leah’s anxiety, and she began to take more and more leave. When speaking with her employer, JAN suggested changing the policy for how the requests for assistance were taken. Instead of in-person and phone interactions, the employer allowed the requests to be sent and responded to through email, eliminating the face-to-face interactions that heightened Leah’s anxiety. This not only improved her performance but also reduced her anxiety. The employer felt the accommodation was highly effective and as a bonus, now had written documentation of the computer issues, how the issues were solved, and the resolution timeframes.  

Tim has an intellectual disability and was hired nearly two years ago. He has never been able to fully perform all his job duties. His employer wanted to make sure Tim was given a fair chance and provided several accommodations over time. The employer went beyond ADA requirements (which do not require employers to eliminate essential job functions) and removed some essential functions that Tim was unable to perform with accommodations. Over time, it became more difficult to cover Tim’s work. In this case the employer ultimately decided to carve out a job for Tim and gave him new essential functions that he could perform. Even though this was not required under the ADA, the employer preferred to find a way to keep Tim employed.

Deondre was a productive employee who had been able to meet the performance standards set by his employer for years, until he had a stroke that limited his cognitive abilities. After medical leave, Deondre returned to work, but he was unable to do large portions of his job. His employer provided multiple accommodations, but none were fully effective at returning Deondre to a level of full productivity, and it was determined that all other reasonable accommodations would impose an undue hardship. In this case, the employer and employee agreed that reassignment to a less demanding job (equivalent in terms of pay, status and other relevant factors) was the best option.

If you need additional information or assistance with processing an accommodation request, please contact JAN, we’re here to help!

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides information to assist with engaging in the interactive process and successfully resolving accommodation situations. This information is informal guidance only; it is not legal advice.

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