​“Reasonable Accommodation” and “Interactive Process” Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Employers need to be aware of two key terms under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “reasonable accommodation” and “interactive process.” These two terms are integral in administering and adhering to the ADA.

A “reasonable accommodation” is any change in the workplace or in the way things are customarily done that provides an equal employment opportunity to an individual with a disability. Common types of accommodations include:

  • Modifying work schedules or supervisory methods
  • Altering how and when job duties are performed
  • Removing and/or substituting a marginal function
  • Moving to a different office space
  • Allowing for telework
  • Making changes to workplace policies (e.g., those concerning breaks or leave)
  • Providing accessible parking for on-site employees
  • Providing a re-assignment to another job

An “interactive process” refers to an information-gathering approach used by an employer with the employee to evaluate a request for an accommodation. It is intended to be a flexible approach that centers on communication between an employer and the individual requesting the reasonable accommodation but may involve obtaining relevant information from a supervisor and the employee’s healthcare providers.

Image of employee in a wheelchair at an office

Generally, the interactive process is triggered by the individual with a disability – who has the most knowledge about the need for reasonable accommodation – informing the employer that an accommodation is needed. Some critical factors to remember with respect to a request include:

  • The request can be verbal or in writing;
  • The employee does not need to use any magic language when making the request;
  • The employee does not need to reference the ADA; and
  • The employee does not need to use the term “reasonable accommodation.”

The employer may have a duty to recognize the need for an accommodation. The EEOC’s guidance provides:

“[A]n employer should initiate the reasonable accommodation interactive process without being asked if the employer:

(1) knows that the employee has a disability;

(2) knows, or has reason to know, that the employee is experiencing workplace problems because of the disability; and

(3) knows, or has reason to know, that the disability prevents the employee from requesting a reasonable accommodation.”

To initiate the interactive process the employer must have notice that the employee has a “disability.” Some important rules to remember regarding notice include:

  • Notice provided to supervisors or managers will be imputed to the employer.
  • Notice may come from the employee directly, or from the employee’s family members, friends, health professionals, or other representatives.
  • Notice may come as a result of administering FMLA leave or a worker’s compensation claim.
  • The notice does not have to disclose the employee’s specific condition (e.g., the employer receives notice of treatment needed by an employee).
  • Notice may also come in the form of objective proof, such as sudden or increasing inability to perform job functions or physical manifestations of symptoms that are readily observable to others in the workplace.

The employer must also have notice of the employee’s desire to obtain some type of accommodation. The notice of the employee’s desire for an accommodation can take a variety of forms, even notice that the employee wants to remain employed (in some capacity). The standard of proof is low. When an employee continues to come to work and continues to perform at least some of his/her essential duties employers are encouraged to proceed with the interactive process.

Once the employer has notice of a disability and the need for an accommodation the employer should act promptly. The ADA requires

(1) direct communication between the employer and employee to explore in good faith the possible accommodations;

(2) consideration of the employee’s request; and

(3) offering an accommodation that is reasonable and effective.

Employers should make sure all necessary steps are taken to implement the accommodation (e.g., installing equipment or revising a schedule or policy) and should communicate with essential personnel about the accommodation. Employers should monitor the accommodation by checking on its effectiveness and encouraging ongoing communication.

Reasonable accommodations and the interactive process are but two of many issues that can arise under the ADA. For questions on these or other issues, contact a member of Barrett McNagny’s Labor and Employment group.

About the Author:

Rachel Steinhofer concentrates her practice in the area of labor and employment. She works with business owners and human resources professionals on a variety of labor issues including employment discrimination, personnel policies and records, employee discipline and discharge, workplace privacy issues and wrongful discharge. She can be reached at (260) 423-8832. 

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