HR Summer School: ADA 103 (part 2 of 2) Reasonable Accommodations

The HR Summer School Back-to-Back Series continues today with the second of two parts of ADA 103. Reasonable accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), are not easy to manage. To make sure this difficult topic gets adequate coverage, we’ve split this class into two parts. The outline includes both parts and is provided for your later reference.


The request is the first step in an informal, interactive process between the individual and the employer. In some instances, before addressing the merits of the request, the employer needs to determine if the condition qualifies as a disability under the ADA.


The purpose of the interactive process is to clarify what the individual needs and to identify the appropriate accommodation. The employer may ask relevant questions to enable it to make an informed decision. 

The end goal during this process is for the employer to learn what obstacles the employee is facing as a result of his or her disability and then try to craft an accommodation to address those obstacles. Often, the nature of the disability is not relevant to the discussion.


The employer may choose the least expensive or burdesome accommodation where more than one exist. As long as it is effective, the employer has the final word on selection. Of course, the employee cannot be required to accept the accommodation if he or she does not want it. But, at the same time, where an employee needs a reasoanble accommodation to peform an essential function of the job or to elminate a direct threat, and reufses to accept an effective accommodation, he or she may not be qualified to remain on the job.

The only legal limitation on an employer’s obligation to provide an accommodation under the ADA
is when it would cause “undue hardship” to the employer. This is a much higher standard than the
standard appied to requests for religious accommodations made under Title VII.

“Undue hardship” means signficant difficulty or expense. The inquiry focues on the resources and
circumstances of the particular employer as compared to the cost or difficulty of providing the

This term refers not only to financial difficulty, but also to requests that are unduly extensive,
substantial, or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or the operation of
the business. The determination is made on a case‐by‐case basis.



The employee works as a cashier at a retail grocer. The employee tells her employer that she has a disability that makes her tire easily and requests that she be given two additional 15‐minute breaks per shift to rest. The employee has Lupus but does not reveal this to the employer.
The request does not sound terribly unreasonable and the employer may be inclined to grant it. But, before concluding whether that this is the appropriate decision, the employer should first engage in the interactive process in an informal discussion with the employee. What the employer needs to know is what obstacles the employee is trying to eliminate. Here, the obstacle is that she becomes fatigued easily. Additional rest breaks may be a reasonable accommodation but there may be others, as well. For example, what if the emloyer offered to provide the emloyee with a stool so she could avoid standing throughout the shift? If the employee agreed that this would help eliminate the obstacle, then it is a reasonable accommodation.

Also, note that the employer never needed to inquire about the exact nature of the disability because the obstacle is all that mattered to the discussion. For example, an employee who works as a cashier tells her employer that she has a disabiltiy that reuqires an accommodation. She  requests that she be given two additional 15‐minute breaks each shift because her disability causes her to become easily fatigued.

 Making existing facilities accessible; i.e., building a wheelchair accessible ramp between two rooms that are adjoined by two stairs.

 Job restructuring; i.e., reallocating marginal job functions that are not necessary to the position but are preventing the employee from performing that job.

 Part‐time or modified work schedules; i.e., allowing an employee to take 45‐minute
breaks to recover from nausea triggered by medication.

 Acquiring or modifying equipment; i.e., providing an assistive listening device to the
employee’s telephone.

 Changing tests, training materials, or policies; i.e., permitting an employee with insulin‐dependent diabetes to eat when needed to adjust her blood‐sugar level despite a policy that employees are not permitted to eat or drink at their workstation.

 Providing qualified readers or interpreters. 

 Reassignment to a vacant position. This is the accommodation of last resort and is
only required where it is first determined that (1) there are no effective accommodations that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his current position, or (2) all other reasonable accommodations would impose an undue hardship. The employee must be “qualified” for the new position but he does not need to be the best‐qualified individual for the position in order to obtain it as a reassignment.

 An employer does not have to eliminate an essential function; i.e., a fundamental duty of the position.

 An employer does not have to lower production standards—whether quality‐related or quantity‐related—that are applied uniformly to employees with and without disabilities.

 An employer does not have to provide personal‐use items needed to accomplish daily activities both on and off the job. For example, an employer is not required to provide an employee with a prosthetic limb, a wheelchair, glasses, hearing aids, or similar devices if they are also needed off the job.

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