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Accommodating Employees' Disabilities

The  duty to provide reasonable accommodation to job applicants and employees is required under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). The Rehabilitation Act has similar requirements applicable to federal contractors.

This toolkit provides an overview of the ADA's legal protections for individuals with disabilities in need of reasonable accommodation in the workplace.


While many individuals with disabilities can apply for and perform jobs without reasonable accommodations, some workplace barriers may keep others from performing jobs that they could do with some form of accommodation. Such barriers may be physical obstacles such as inaccessible facilities or equipment, or they may be procedures or rules such as those specifying when work is to be performed, when breaks are to be taken, or how essential or marginal functions are to be performed. Reasonable accommodation removes workplace barriers for individuals with disabilities so that they may enjoy equal employment opportunities.

The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidance, an individual with a disability is a person who meets one or more of the following:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • Has a record of such an impairment.
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

An employee who is associated with an individual with a disability is also protected from discrimination under the ADA. 

 See ADA Associational Disability Claim Advances.

A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question.

Many accommodations can be achieved relatively easily and at little or even no cost to the employer. A study by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) shows that accommodations in the workplace provide consistent employer benefits over time, and most accommodations have zero cost to the employer. When expenses are involved, the accommodations typically cost only $500. 

See Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact.

Reasonable Accommodation Requirements

The ADA requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified job applicants or employees with disabilities except when such accommodation would cause an undue hardship.

The process of accommodating applicants and employees with disabilities involves several steps, some of which may need to be repeated. 

See How to Handle an Employee's Request for an ADA Accommodation.

Some examples of possible reasonable accommodations that an employer may have to provide in connection with modifying the work environment or adjusting how and when a job is performed include:

  • Making existing facilities accessible.
  • Restructuring a job.
  • Permitting part-time or modified work schedules.
  • Allowing work to be performed at home.
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment.
  • Changing tests, training materials or policies.
  • Providing qualified readers or interpreters.
  • Reassigning an employee to an open position.

Know when an accommodation is being requested. 

In requesting an accommodation, an individual may use "plain English" and need not mention the ADA or use the phrase "reasonable accommodation." A request for accommodation can be made orally or in writing.

Examples of requests for accommodation include:

  • An employee tells her supervisor, "I'm having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments I'm undergoing."
  • An employee tells his supervisor, "I need six weeks off to get treatment for a back problem."
  • An applicant who uses a wheelchair informs the employer that she is unable to access the human resources office on the second floor of the employer's building because the building does not have an elevator.

An employee that tells his supervisor that he would like a new chair because the one he is using is uncomfortable has not provided enough information to trigger an ADA accommodation request because the employee does not link his need for the new chair with a medical condition. If the employee subsequently discloses that the chair is uncomfortable because he has fibromyalgia or a back problem, for example, then the employer would need to consider this a request for accommodation. 

 See Is 'I've Changed Meds' an Accommodation Request?

Engage in an interactive dialog with the employee. 

The employer must engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine accommodation solutions. 

See Job Accommodation Network: Interactive Process.

Ask for medical documentation when appropriate. 

When a disability or the need for accommodation is not obvious, an employer may request documentation about the individual's disability and functional limitations. An employer may require only the documentation needed to establish that a person has an ADA disability and that the disability necessitates a reasonable accommodation in the workplace. 

See ADA: Accommodation Medical Certification.

As an alternative to requesting documentation, an employer may simply discuss with the person the nature of his or her disability and functional limitations.

Determine whether accommodations are reasonable. 

Once an individual has indicated a request for accommodation, the employer should next determine whether the necessary accommodations are reasonable. An employer must assess on a case-by-case basis whether a particular reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship. Guidance from the EEOC indicates that the determination of undue hardship should be based on several factors, including:

  • The nature and cost of the accommodation needed.
  • The overall financial resources of the facility making the reasonable accommodation; the number of persons employed at this facility; the effect on expenses and resources of the facility.
  • The overall financial resources, size, number of employees, and type and location of facilities of the employer (if the facility involved in the reasonable accommodation is part of a larger entity).
  • The type of operation of the employer, including the structure and functions of the workforce, the geographic separateness, and the administrative or fiscal relationship of the facility involved in making the accommodation to the employer.
  • The impact of the accommodation on the operation of the facility.

Continue communication with the individual regarding accommodations. There may be times when an accommodation is necessary on a permanent basis. However, some accommodations may be needed only for a specified period of time, such as a telework arrangement following a surgical procedure. The need for and type of accommodation may also change over time. Keeping an open dialog with the individual can help ensure the employer meets its obligations under the law as well as allows the employee to be as productive as possible in the workplace.

Document all interactions with the individual regarding the accommodation request. Both written communications and notes of verbal conversations regarding the need for an ADA accommodation should be maintained.

Additional Resources

What You Need to Know About... The Americans with Disabilities Act

SHRM Foundation Research Employing Abilities @Work

SHRM ADA Resource Page

EEOC: Enforcement Guidance and Other Policy Documents on the ADA

Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act

Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Veterans and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): A Guide for Employers

Job Accommodation Network (JAN)

Tax Benefits for Businesses Who Have Employees with Disabilities