An Introduction to the Reasonable Accommodation Process under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act

By:

Layla G. Taylor is a partner in the Springfield, Massachusetts office of Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn, LLC.   She specializes in management-side labor and employment law.

Every request for an accommodation should be reviewed separately to determine if it poses an undue hardship.  New attorneys should review the facts of a given situation against existing case law, regulations and agency guidance.  For example, an undue hardship may not exist just because an accommodation seems expensive to the employer.   An employer may be required to show that grant monies or other outside funding sources are unavailable to finance the accommodation before it can claim an undue hardship.

Initial Response to the Reasonable Accommodation Request

Although a reasonable accommodation request can be made to any individual with a supervisory role, employers are permitted to designate a specific worker or department for the central handling of such requests.  Because of this, employers often train their supervisors, managers and human resource staff to work cooperatively on both the identification and administration of disability related claims.  Federal law does not set strict time limits for responding to an accommodation request.  However, because a delay can result in a failure to accommodate or a retaliation claim, employers should start the reasonable accommodation process as soon as a request is received.  An employer should do this by confirming receipt of the request, expeditiously securing any necessary medical documentation and promptly engaging in the interactive process.

Engaging in the Interactive Process

The purpose of the “interactive process” is to determine what, if any, accommodation should be provided to an employee. The ultimate determination about the reasonable accommodations to be provided is up to the employer. The employee can refuse to accept an offered accommodation. 

During the interactive process, the employer may ask the worker relevant questions that will enable it to make an informed decision about the request. This includes asking for information about the desired accommodation, the nature of the problem prompting the request, and how the employee believes a disability has occasioned the need for an accommodation.

The employee is also required to participate in the interactive process. Although the individual with a disability is not required to identify the exact accommodation necessary, the employee does need to describe the work-related problem he or she is having and why he or she believes it is related to a disability.  

Medical Information Requests and Confidentiality Concerns

For the interactive process to be effective, the employer will sometimes need medical documentation. When the disability or need for an accommodation is not obvious, an employer may require an employee to provide medical documentation.  This must only be for purposes of establishing the existence of a qualifying disability, to show the employee needs a reasonable accommodation, or to help determine effective options.  

 Medical documentation obtained in connection with the reasonable accommodation process must be kept confidential and maintained separately from an employee’s personnel file.  This includes the fact that an accommodation request was made or approved and information about an employee’s functional limitations. 

Although employers are permitted to share information with the employee’s supervisor and other supervisors/managers as necessary to make appropriate determinations on a reasonable accommodation request, any employee who obtains or receives such information is bound by the confidentiality requirements. 

Conclusion

The Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is charged with the responsibility of promulgating regulations and overseeing the enforcement of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.  For additional information regarding the reasonable accommodation process, new practitioners should consult the materials available on the EEOC’s website at http://www.eeoc.gov.

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