Employee Guide: How to Ask for Workplace Disability Accommodations

Having trouble asking your boss for workplace accommodations? In this article, Ability Central shares tips for negotiating accommodations with employers, as well as information about workers’ rights protected by law.

By Ability Central

16 May, 2024

A Latina woman with a muscular disability, wearing a pink striped shirt, black pants, and white Converse sneakers, sits in her wheelchair at a long table in a coworking space, working from her tablet while interviewing candidates for a new job

When a disability interferes with your success at work, when is the right time to ask your boss for accommodations? And how do you assert your rights without creating conflict with your employer?

Every worker, no matter their age, gender, race, religion, or disability status, has the right to a safe and productive work environment. What many employees don’t realize is that the right to reasonable workplace accommodations for people with disabilities is protected by law.

In this guide, Ability Central offers tips for negotiating workplace accommodation requests as an employee with disabilities. You’ll learn:

  • What workers’ rights are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • What “reasonable accommodations” look like
  • How to open a conversation about accommodations with your employer
  • How to negotiate for disability accommodations in the workplace
  • What to do if your employer denies your accommodation request
  • Where to find an employment attorney

This guide is designed for employees seeking fair accommodations from their employers. If you’re an employer wanting to learn more about disability accommodations at work, see Employer Guide: How to Offer Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities.

Workers’ Rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The world of workplace accommodations can be a confusing one. People’s disability needs change every day, and no two people will experience a disability the same way. In the same vein, the way employers handle disability accommodation requests varies from workplace to workplace. 

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, you have certain guaranteed rights under legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Among other rights, the ADA guarantees people with disabilities have the right to fair, safe workplaces free from discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. 

The ADA also grants disabled workers the right to reasonable accommodations and equal pay for equal work (compared to team members without disabilities). 

State departments, labor unions, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are the primary authorities in workers’ rights disputes. The EEOC enforces the ADA and other laws, while state governments and labor unions keep the most up-to-date information about local workers’ rights legislation. 

To learn more about workers’ rights, the ADA, and the EEOC, see Disability Rights in the Workplace: An Overview and ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

What are “reasonable accommodations”?

These are changes to hiring processes or work procedures that help someone with a disability perform their job well. They are required by law, unless the accommodation would cause the employer “undue hardship,” like excessive cost or difficulty that negatively affects the business.

To learn more about reasonable accommodations under the ADA, see ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Examples of reasonable accommodations at work             

Accommodations in the workplace might include:

  • Wheelchair ramps and mobility aids
  • ASL interpreters for meetings or using ASL relay services for calls 
  • Alternate application and interview processes
  • Sitting in what is traditionally a standing role (i.e. cashiering or teaching)
  • Accessible software and hardware
  • Braille, large print, or audio materials
  • Welcoming a service animal into a common workspace
  • Flexible or remote work schedules to accommodate doctors’ appointments and rest breaks

Ability Central and the ADA do not provide exhaustive lists of possible workplace accommodations. If there is something that would make you more successful in your job, it’s your right as an employee to request that accommodation from your employer. Then, it’s time to negotiate what exactly these accommodations look like. 

How To Negotiate Accommodation Requests as an Employee

Most workplace accommodation requests follow a simple bargaining structure. Sometimes, it’s as easy as making a suggestion to your boss or HR department. Other times, employees and employers must work together to find a reasonable solution. 

What is the process for requesting workplace accommodations?

Most workplace accommodation requests follow the same basic structure:

  1. Disclose your disability to management.
  2. Ask your manager, boss, or HR department for accommodations. You can use plain English (no need for “legalese”) and you do not have to use the words “reasonable accommodations.” 
  3. Suggest specific options if you have them in mind or ask to work out a solution with your team.
  4. Let your employer investigate whether they can provide the accommodation or not, then notify you of their decision. 
  5. If the employer agrees with your request, they implement the accommodation. You and your employer can stay in touch to see how well the accommodation is working out. 
  6. If the employer cannot offer your requested accommodation, you and the employer can sit down together to work out an acceptable alternative. 
  7. If the employer repeatedly denies your requests for reasonable accommodations, you can contact an employment lawyer or file a dispute with the EEOC, your labor union, or your state’s department of labor. 

What are the best tips for negotiating workplace accommodations?

Before you approach your boss with an accommodation request, prepare yourself with these tips:

  • Collect information in advance. Provide your disability diagnosis, information about your physical or cognitive limitations, and how your disability impacts your job duties. If possible, get a note from your healthcare team with their recommended accommodations. If your workplace or industry has a union, speak with a union representative to learn more about your rights.
  • Provide accommodation suggestions. If you know of specific technology, scheduling, or process changes that would help you, suggest these to your supervisors. Otherwise, be prepared to brainstorm to find a solution together. 
  • Stay positive. Workplace accommodations are a right, not a suggestion. Approach the conversation with an open mind. Remember, your goal here is to make work easier for you, which improves performance for your company. Working together is the best way to find accommodations that improve your work life. 
  • Stay flexible. Not every employer can offer expensive or difficult accommodations. Taking too rigid of a stance can turn negotiations sour. Expect to go back and forth with your employer, offering positive ideas and receiving constructive suggestions. It’s a conversation, not a demand.
  • Don’t take it personally if you don’t get what you asked for right away. Your employer might have more going on behind the scenes than you know about. If your request is denied, ask your employer to provide their reasoning in writing. You can also ask for suggested alternative accommodations. 
  • Be prepared to continue the conversation. After implementing accommodations, you and your boss should plan to touch base again about how things are going. An accommodation that doesn’t work can make things worse. Also, many people’s disability needs change over time, so you may need to tweak your system or request different accommodations in the future. 

When should I ask for accommodations at work?

Workplace accommodations are not a “one and done” system. There is no limit to the number of accommodations requests an employee can make, and there is no limit to when you make the request. 

Workers with disabilities can request accommodations:

  • During the interview process.
  • As part of their hiring package.
  • When circumstances change (i.e. switching from a remote to an in-office workspace).
  • At any time in their employment.

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), you should ask for workplace accommodations before your disability impacts your work performance. It’s up to you whether to report a disability to your employer, but make sure you’re setting yourself up for success. 

Under the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, but they do not have to take back disciplinary action that went through before they knew about your disability. 

Do I need to disclose my disability to my employer before I get hired?

No. Job applicants are not legally required to disclose their disabilities to potential employers. Under the ADA’s anti-discrimination regulations, employers cannot directly ask you about disabilities, medications, medical history, or past workers’ compensation claims, even if you have a visible disability like using a wheelchair.  

Instead, potential employers might ask questions about how you will perform specific job duties or if you will need accommodations at any point in your employment. They may include optional sections on job applications that allow you to share your disability history if you choose to do so. For example, most companies offer a form called the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form as part of their online or paper applications. 

Whether or not you disclose your disability is up to you, but it’s much easier to request workplace accommodations if you let your employer know about your disability. To learn more about the pros and cons of telling your boss about your disability, see Disability Rights in the Workplace: An Overview.

How to Navigate Workplace Accommodation Disputes

Sometimes, despite both parties’ best efforts, requests for workplace accommodations can be difficult to settle. However, just because an employer tells you “no” doesn’t mean the conversation has to end. 

As an employee with disabilities, you have protected rights under the ADA. And more importantly, there are ways to fight for them. 

What do I do if my employer denies my accommodation request? 

If your request for reasonable accommodations has been denied by your employer, there are steps you can take to make sure your protected rights are still being honored. 

You can dispute your employer’s decision by:

  • Requesting an explanation (in writing) for why your request was denied.
  • Scheduling a consultation with an employment lawyer to understand your rights. 
  • Filing a claim or dispute with your state’s labor board or the EEOC.
  • When all else fails, filing a disability discrimination lawsuit against your employer.

In addition, trade unions and other labor organizations may offer resources and legal assistance for workplace accommodation disputes. If your workplace has a union or workers’ rights organization, ask leadership about next steps. 

Hopefully you and your employer can come to an agreement without taking things to court. Sometimes, however, legal action is unavoidable if you want to protect your rights. In that case, your next step would be to schedule a consultation with an employment attorney, workers’ rights attorney, or wrongful termination lawyer.  

Where do I find an employee rights lawyer?

If you feel your right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace has been violated, you may want to work with an employment lawyer. 

Also called an employment attorney, wrongful termination lawyer, workplace lawyer, or employee rights attorney, employment lawyers help people settle cases of discrimination, safety, and health in the workplace. 

Workers’ rights lawyers can help with:

  • Wrongful termination
  • Discrimination based on disability (or sex, age, sexual orientation, religion, race, etc.) 
  • Sexual harassment
  • Salary and benefit disputes
  • Family and medical leave lawsuits
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Workplace health and safety issues

Here are a few of the best ways to find a local employee rights attorney:

  • Ask friends, family, and colleagues for a referral.
  • Check with a local bar association.
  • Make an appointment at a legal aid clinic.
  • Use an attorney directory like FindLaw to find an employment lawyer near you. 

When hiring an employment attorney, ask about their experience arguing workplace dispute cases. Look up some of their past cases to see how they were resolved or settled. Ask up front about fees and retainers so you’re not surprised by court costs. 

You can also ask about your attorney’s knowledge of current employment laws, federal workers’ rights, state workers’ compensation policies, local labor laws, and more. For employment cases, you want an attorney who is knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled in the type of help you need. 

Additional Resources for Employees Seeking Workplace Accommodations

To learn more about your rights as a worker with disabilities, see: 

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the official ADA.gov website

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers resources for workers, employers, and others related to disability accommodations and discrimination in the workplace. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers guidance on workers’ rights and other employment considerations, including workplace accommodations. 

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