What Does Reasonable Accommodation Mean for Employers?

Tips on discrimination laws in the workplace

By Lisa Stickler | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 16, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Kerryann Haase Minton and Heather R. M. Becker

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Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and state laws such as the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA), employers can neither refuse to hire qualified individuals based on a disability nor refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation enabling the completion of essential job functions.

“The ADA stops the employer from assuming that, because of a disability, an individual cannot do the job,” says Heather Becker, an employment litigator at Laner Muchin in Chicago. “It goes even further [than hiring and accommodations], to really any employment action: they can’t discriminate.”

The IHRA essentially mirrors the protections of the ADA, but there’s a simple way to remember which takes precedence, says Kerryann Minton, an employment litigator at Michael Best in Chicago. “When both laws are applicable, the one with the greater protection for the employee will govern.”

While Title I of the ADA and IHRA promote equity in the workplace, determining the reasonability of an accommodation request is complicated, and no easy, one-size-fits-all answer exists.

When both [federal and state] laws are applicable, the one with the greater protection for the employee will govern.

Kerryann Haase Minton

What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

At the core of both laws lies the concept of reasonable accommodation, which Becker defines as “some kind of alteration or change in the job that’s doable and would allow the individual to perform the essential obligations of the job.”

What types of accommodation are required is determined on a case-by-case basis, and these requirements may change over time. The need for a reasonable accommodation can “extend all the way to the very beginning of the job application process,” Minton says. In fact, the accommodation process may even start before an application has been formally submitted in the hiring process.

It’s a broad term, as well. An accommodation’s appropriateness depends on “the particular circumstance of the position,” Minton says, and employee needs. Examples of reasonable accommodations include things such as:

  • Modified work schedules or work environments;
  • Flexible short-term leaves;
  • More frequent breaks;
  • Equipment or facility changes;
  • Policy adjustments;
  • Procedural changes;
  • Reassignment to a vacant position or different job tasks; and
  • Enhanced communication access (for example, having a sign language interpreter at meetings or providing information in large print or alternative formats such as Braille);

Reasonable accommodations allow employees to perform essential functions of a job, Minton adds, but do not excuse poor performance of those tasks.

When determining an appropriate accommodation, Becker advises her clients to “talk to their employees about job duties” rather than focusing on the disability itself. Notably, as many offices have shifted to remote work arrangements, employers must remember that previously agreed-upon in-office accommodations still apply.

The ADA stops the employer from assuming that, because of a disability, an individual cannot do the job. It goes even further [than hiring and accommodations], to really any employment action: they can’t discriminate.

Heather R. M. Becker

An Undue Hardship on the Employer is Not “Reasonable”

An accommodation that places an undue hardship on an employer is not considered reasonable. The ADA defines undue hardship as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.”

The factors considered when assessing undue hardship, Minton says, can include:

  • The nature and net cost of the accommodation;
  • The overall financial resources of the facility or covered entity;
  • The type of operations at the covered entity; and
  • The impact of the accommodations upon the operation of the facility.

For example, Minton describes a situation in which an employee who is part of a three-person physical labor team requests a later start time. In that case, the impact on the other team members can constitute an undue hardship.

Similarly, Becker says, “Creating a job for someone or taking someone else out of a job to open it up for an employee with a disability” is not considered reasonable.

Minimizing Employer Risk

Becker advises her clients to create a policy and training materials prohibiting workplace discrimination based on a disability and to have an established reasonable accommodation process for the receipt and analysis of accommodation requests.

Employers, she says, ought to “train managers and supervisors on how to talk to employees about these issues,” adding that confidentiality is of utmost importance.

Typically, employers learn of a disability when an accommodation is requested. Employers place themselves at risk if they try to diagnose workers, Becker says. When an employer suspects the presence of a disability that may affect job performance, she says the magic question to ask is: “Is there anything we can do to help you perform your job better?”

Find an Experienced Employment Law Attorney

To ensure that your company’s human resources policies are compliant with federal and state civil rights laws guaranteeing reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities, use the Super Lawyers directory to find an experienced employment law attorney.

For more information about this area, see our overview of employment law and related content.

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