General Requirements For Reasonable Disability Accommodations

In past posts here and here regarding our Des Moines disability discrimination practice as Des Moines employment lawyers, we've discussed various specific situations involving reasonable accommodations and state and federal disability discrimination law. But not all requests for a reasonable accommodation encompass one of those specific areas, each with its rules and considerations. So what are the general guiding principles for reasonable accommodation requests?

When an individual decides to request accommodation, the individual must let the employer know that an adjustment or change at work is necessary for a reason related to a medical condition. To request accommodation, an individual may use "plain English" and need not mention any specific state or federal law or use the phrase "reasonable accommodation." While an individual with a disability may request a change due to a medical condition, this request does not necessarily mean that the employer is required to provide the change. A request for reasonable accommodation is the first step in an informal, interactive process between the individual and the employer. I'll discuss that "interactive process" in more detail in a later blog post.

An employer is required to make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified handicapped applicant or employee unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business. That requirement extends to employees who develop a disability after their employment begins. When an individual becomes disabled, from whatever cause, during a term of employment, the employer shall make every reasonable effort to continue the individual in the same position or to retain and reassign the employee and to assist that individual’s rehabilitation. So there are two main components to the reasonable accommodation analysis:  (1) is the accommodation reasonable and (2) would the requested accommodation be an undue hardship for the employer?  

Reasonable accommodation may include making facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by handicapped persons, and job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, the provision of readers or interpreters, and other similar actions. An accommodation is unreasonable if it requires the employer to change the essential nature of the job or if it places undue burdens on the employer. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation must be made by an employer only if it does not substantially impinge on the rights of other employees.

In determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of an employer’s business, factors to be considered include the overall size of the employer’s program with respect to number of employees, number and type of facilities, and size of budget; the type of the employer’s operation, including the composition and structure of the employer’s workforce; and the nature and cost of the accommodation needed. Thus, in considering the reasonableness of an employer's accommodation of an employee's disability, courts must consider not only the disabled employee's needs but also the economic realities faced by the employer. Generalized conclusions will not suffice to support a claim of undue hardship. Instead, undue hardship must be based on an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense. If an employer determines that one particular reasonable accommodation will cause undue hardship, but a second type of reasonable accommodation will be effective and will not cause an undue hardship, then the employer must provide the second accommodation. An employer cannot claim undue hardship based on employees' (or customers') fears or prejudices toward the individual's disability. Nor can undue hardship be based on the fact that provision of a reasonable accommodation might have a negative impact on the morale of other employees. Employers, however, may be able to show undue hardship where provision of a reasonable accommodation would be unduly disruptive to other employees's ability to work.

If an employee's ability to do her job depends on reasonable accommodation, the employee must make an initial showing that a reasonable accommodation was possible. That is not hard to prove. It requires no more of the employee than to propose an accommodation and present testimony of its feasibility. If the plaintiff shows a reasonable accommodation is possible, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that it is not able to accommodate the plaintiff's disability or that the proposed accommodation is unreasonable.

Harley Erbe