Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability (to review a quick primer on what constitutes a disability, please check our previous publication HERE). A covered employer is required, absent an undue hardship, to provide a reasonable accommodation to an otherwise qualified individual who meets the definition of disabled under the “actual disability” prong, or “record of” prong, but is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation to an individual who meets the definition of disabled solely under the “regarded as” prong. A qualified individual is someone who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.
The interactive process has become a regular part of any disability-related accommodation in the workplace—and when you think about it, it makes sense why. This is because the interactive process is the means for determining what reasonable accommodations are available to allow a disabled individual to perform the essential functions of the job. Though not mandatory in some situations, it is highly recommended that any time an employer is met with an accommodation request due to disability that the employer engages in this interactive process with the individual.
Put simply, the interactive process is when the employer engages with the disabled individual to determine the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations. The interactive process is a conversation—it’s a discussion between the individual and the employer. The interactive process is an informal back and forth about if/how the employer can accommodate the individual and then a determination by the employer about whether that accommodation is reasonable or whether it would create an undue hardship.
Generally speaking, reasonable accommodations are modifications to the working environment that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position. It is impossible to list each potential accommodation (because each employer is different), but a few broad examples include: job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; reassignment to a vacant position; acquisition or modifications of equipment or devices; appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials, or policies; and the provision of qualified readers or interpreters.
A few specific examples include:
- Providing a standing desk to an employee who cannot sit for longer than two hours due to her knee replacement;
- Providing a more cushioned chair for an employee who has a diagnosed lumbar strain;
- Permitting an employee who is legally blind to work from home so he will not have to commute to work each day;
- Permitting an employee to take four 15-minute breaks during the day rather than one 60-minute break to alleviate the employee’s diagnosed anxiety; or
- Providing an employee who performs manual labor with a back brace to alleviate the employee’s sciatica.
The employer is required, absent an undue hardship, to provide a reasonable accommodation to an otherwise qualified, disabled individual. Generally speaking, an undue hardship is a significant difficulty or expense incurred by the employer when considering the following list of factors:
- The nature and net cost of the accommodation needed, taking into consideration the availability of tax credits and deductions, and/or outside funding;
- The overall financial resources of the facility or facilities involved in the provision of the reasonable accommodation, the number of persons employed at such facility, and the effect on expenses and resources;
- The overall financial resources of the employer, the overall size of the business of the employer with respect to the number of its employees, and the number, type, and location of its facilities;
- The type of operation or operations of the employer, including the composition, structure and functions of the workforce of such entity, and the geographic separateness and administrative or fiscal relationship of the facility or facilities in question to the employer; and
- The impact of the accommodation upon the operation of the facility, including the impact on the ability of other employees to perform their duties and the impact on the facility’s ability to conduct business.
Employers are encouraged to find creative solutions for a potential reasonable accommodation in the workplace. These types of accommodation inquiries need to be handled confidentially, appropriately, and thoroughly to ensure compliance with the applicable ADA laws and subsequent regulations.