Employer Guide: How to Offer Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities

How do employers support team members with disabilities? Here are the best ways to navigate disability accommodations as an employer, including what employers’ rights are protected by law.

By Ability Central

16 May, 2024

Two work colleagues in blue collared shirts, one an older Black man with a mustache and short black hair, and the other a young white man with Down syndrome, use a smart tablet to complete work responsibilities together

A huge part of being a good business owner is taking care of your team. Workplace happiness is key to high performance and long work tenure, and one of the best ways a business owner can support their staff is to offer accommodations for employees with disabilities. 

In this guide, Ability Central shares disability accommodations guidelines for employers. We go over legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the impact workers’ rights have on employees around the country. Plus, we examine the protections available to business owners and employers under these same laws. 

You’ll learn:

  • The basics of workers’ rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • The definition of “reasonable accommodations”
  • When accommodations are required for employees with disabilities
  • How “undue hardship” rules allow businesses to reject accommodations that would hurt or fundamentally change the business 
  • The best accommodations to offer people with disabilities during the hiring process and during their employment
  • What to do if an employee requests an impossible accommodation
  • Where to find an attorney to help navigate accommodation disagreements

This guide is for employers, business owners, and managers who want to deepen their understanding of employees’ rights and disability accommodations under the ADA. 

For employees, Ability Central also offers a guide on negotiating accommodations at work. See Employee Guide: How to Ask for Workplace Disability Accommodations for more details.

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

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers guaranteed protections for workers with disabilities. Under the ADA, employees have the right to:

  • A safe workplace free from harassment or discrimination
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Take part in workplace investigations, lawsuits, or other disputes without fear of retaliation
  • Reasonable accommodations for disclosed disabilities 

The same rules that protect employees also protect their employers. So long as your organization follows documented procedures and policies related to wages, accommodations, benefits, and more, you can have open, clear communication with team members and create an efficient workplace for all. 

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?

Offering Reasonable Accommodations as an Employer

Accommodations requests vary from employee to employee and from business to business. Under federal laws like the ADA, employers are required to offer “reasonable accommodations” to workers with disabilities. The specifics of these requirements may vary based on state and local legislature.

What are “reasonable accommodations”?

Required by law, reasonable accommodations are changes to hiring or work processes that help someone with a disability perform their job well. 

Accommodations in the workplace might include:

  • Installing wheelchair ramps and mobility aids
  • Hiring an ASL interpreter for meetings or using ASL relay services for calls 
  • Offering alternate application and interview processes
  • Allowing someone to sit in what is traditionally a standing role (i.e. cashiering or teaching)
  • Installing accessible software and hardware
  • Providing materials in Braille or large print
  • Welcoming a service animal into a common workspace
  • Offering a flexible or remote work schedule to accommodate doctors’ appointments and rest breaks

Important note: Employers are not required to offer unnecessary or unreasonable accommodations if the team member can perform their job duties without them. This also applies to accommodations that would cause “undue hardship” to a business.

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

What does it mean for an accommodation to cause “undue hardship” to a business?

Employers do not have to offer accommodations that would cause “undue hardship” to the business.

“Undue hardship” refers to things that would negatively and significantly affect your business. This could be through prohibitive cost, damage to your office or physical location, or fundamental changes to your business’s operations. 

Undue hardship decisions vary on a case-by-case basis. Business owners and attorneys consider:

  • The business’s financial resources
  • The overall size of the business
  • The nature and cost of requested accommodations
  • Safety risks to employees or customers
  • The accommodation’s impact on business operations

For example, let’s say an employee who uses an electric wheelchair requested a wheelchair-accessible fleet vehicle. A large, multistate business that regularly purchases company cars for employees would likely be expected to fulfill this request. 

However, this likely wouldn’t be the case for a small business with local team members who all use their personal vehicles at work. HR managers and ADA attorneys might calculate the purchase and maintenance costs of the accessible van and confirm that such a burden would damage the business’s finances or daily operations.

In another example, let’s say a library employee with multiple sclerosis requested a part-time schedule to account for doctors’ appointments and rest breaks. If the library typically schedules three people per shift, limiting the employee with MS’s hours might force other team members to take on extra duties. 

If the library’s staff was large enough to spread the extra hours among team members, this schedule change might not be a problem. But if this would impact the other employees’ performance or the library’s daily operations, the flexible schedule could be considered an undue hardship. 

To learn more about undue hardship, see this ADA enforcement guidance document from the EEOC.

Disability Accommodations During the Hiring Process

The hiring process is about finding the perfect person for your team. Skills, experience, and professionalism may all be things you look for in a new employee, but there are ways to make the hiring process equitable and accessible for every applicant.

What accommodations should I offer to job applicants?

You can make your job application process more accessible by offering:

  • Clear and explicit explanations of your hiring process, including the number of interview rounds, any skills or knowledge tests, and any writing samples or other work you might request. 
  • Interview locations, application forms, and employment offices accessible to a variety of disabilities.
  • Materials in multiple formats, like Braille, large text, or audio description.
  • ASL interpreters, teletypewriter (TTY), or telephone relay services (TRS) for interviews.
  • Assistance completing forms or providing information for applicants who are blind, Deaf, or have another communication disability. 
  • Alternate interview formats for in-person meetings, like video interviews or phone calls. 

How can I make the interview process easier for people with disabilities? 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers can make interview processes easier and more accessible by:

  • Concentrating on the individual, not the disability.
  • Relaxing and helping the interviewee feel relaxed. 
  • Treating each candidate with the same respect.
  • Holding all candidates to the same standards. 
  • Asking only job-related questions.
  • Encouraging applicants to talk about their skills, experience, abilities, interests, and technical and professional knowledge.

Can I ask if someone has a disability before I offer them a job? 

No. Under the ADA’s anti-discrimination regulations, employers cannot directly ask applicants about their disabilities, medical history, or past accommodations disputes, even if they have a visible disability like using a wheelchair. 

However, employers can ask questions about how employees will perform specific job duties. If the disability is obvious or the applicant has disclosed their disability, you can also ask if applicants will need reasonable accommodations during the hiring process or on the job. 

Employers may also offer optional sections on job applications that allow applicants to share their disability history, request accommodations, or disclose other medical information. As long as these options are voluntary, they are legal to include. An example of this is the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form, which many employers include in online or paper job applications.

How To Negotiate Accommodation Requests as an Employer

Responding to an accommodation request can be a complex process. The best way to handle something like this is to stay open-minded, communicative, and flexible. Remember that accommodations are a collaborative task. Only by working with your employees with disabilities can you provide the best workplace for your team.

What are the best tips for negotiating accommodations as an employer?

You can improve your negotiation process for accommodations as an employer by following these tips.

  • Stay friendly, professional, and flexible. Approach accommodations discussions as a project you’re working on together, not as something you’re “forced” to do. Remember that your employee is asking for accommodations not to cheat the system, but to make their work life easier and, in turn, improve their performance for you. 
  • Err on the side of over-communication. No matter where you are in the accommodation process, keep the requester informed. Send email updates about shipping times for new tools, installation dates for new technology, or other movements in your timeline and keep everything in writing. Even a simple, “No movement on this yet, but we’re working on it!” is a better response than radio silence.  
  • Document everything. Not only is this helpful for clarifying things between yourself and your employee, but documentation gives you something to look back on when settling disputes. It also establishes a legal precedent to explain your reasoning if you have to reject the accommodation request. 
  • Take advantage of free online resources. Organizations like the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offer free, customizable forms for requesting and granting accommodations. JAN also maintains the Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR), which gives employers a way to independently research accommodations solutions. 
  • Don’t promise anything you know you can’t fulfill. “Handshake agreements” and empty promises won’t get the job done. An employee who truly needs an accommodation at work won’t simply go away if nothing gets done. Keep communicating, stay flexible, and follow through. Your team will only improve with your efforts. 

What do I do if an employee requests an impossible accommodation? 

Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to provide an accommodation. When this happens, it’s important to communicate your reasoning clearly and work with your employee to find an acceptable alternative. 

Provide, in writing, your reasoning for denying the request. Make sure to include information about:

  • The nature and cost of the accommodation.
  • The financial resources of your company or location. 
  • How many people would be affected by the accommodation, whether negatively or positively. 
  • The impact the accommodation would have on day-to-day operations. 
  • The scale of the business (number, type, and location of facilities, etc.)
  • The business practices of your organization, particularly any that would be disrupted by the accommodation. 

When in doubt, talk to an employment lawyer, a union representative, or another professional familiar with your state’s labor laws. Invite your employee to bring a mediator to your discussion sessions to help you both navigate the law. 

However, if communications break down, you still have legal rights as an employer. A workplace rights attorney can help you reach a settlement or respond to a discrimination lawsuit. 

How do I terminate employment for someone with a disability?

Termination for employees with disabilities works the same as termination for everyone else. A team member who just isn’t working out may need to be reassigned or let go. However, team members with disabilities deserve—and have the legal right to—proper notice and a proper chance to improve. 

Document everything. Maintain records, in writing, of any past performance issues or disciplinary action. Many employers fear retaliatory discrimination lawsuits if they fire an employee with disabilities, but if you have all your documentation ducks in a row, you can open clear and frank communication about why you made your decision. 

A popular misconception in the employment world is that employers in “at will” employment states can fire anyone whenever they want. While at will employment lets both employers and employees end a work contract at any time, at will employment status cannot be used to fire someone based on disability, race, gender, age, religion, or any other protected class. 

As an employer, you need documentation in place to support your termination decision if the person who lost their job files a discrimination complaint. 

Where do I find an employers’ rights lawyer?

If you need help navigating an accommodations dispute or responding to a discrimination lawsuit, an attorney specializing in workplace rights can help. Look for a lawyer with experience in settling these kinds of cases, as well as expansive knowledge of federal and local labor laws.

Here are a few of the best ways to find an employers’ rights lawyer:

  • Ask friends, family, and colleagues for a referral.
  • Check with a local bar association.
  • Make an appointment at a legal aid clinic. 
  • Reach out to organizations like JAN or the EEOC.
  • Use a directory like FindLaw to find a workplace rights attorney near you. 
  • Defer to your company’s legal department, if you have one. 
  • Speak to members of any professional organizations you or your company may be part of. 

Where can I get more information about employers’ rights in the workplace?

To learn more about employers’ rights and employment rights for people 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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