Revisiting The "Interactive Process" Under The Americans With Disabilities Act

In a past post about disability discrimination, I briefly touched on the interactive process that the Americans With Disability Act requires when employers and employees try to accommodate an employee's disability. The ADA mandates that employers reasonably accommodate employees' disabilities of. Federal regulations further instruct that reasonable accommodations must be determined through an “interactive process.” Failure to do so can expose an employer to an employment law claim for failing to offer a reasonable accommodation to a person with a disability.

The federal regulations, which the courts often follow, include several steps for the interactive process:

  • The employer should evaluate the particular job to determine the job's purpose and essential functions.

  • The employer and the disabled employee should interact to identify any limitations due to a disability that may hinder the employee's performance of a particular job function. This should include an analysis of the employee’s abilities and limitations and the factors in the work environment or job duties that may pose difficulties.

  • The employer and the employee should identify possible accommodations that might eliminate the employee's difficulties while still allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.

  • Once the possible accommodations have been identified, the employer should evaluate the effectiveness of each potential accommodation and the employee's preferences, then decide whether any of the possible accommodations would cause undue hardship to the employer.

It's expected that employers and employees will review possible accommodations in good faith. The interactive process requires communication and good-faith exploration of possible accommodations between employers and individual employees. The shared goal is to identify an accommodation that allows the employee to perform the job effectively. From the employer's standpoint, good faith can be viewed as the equivalent of cooperation. Employers should make the interactive process as easy as possible for employees through things such as having forms to be used for requesting accommodations, making time to address accommodation requests and doing so in a timely manner, and training management personnel to ensure that none of them do anything to hinder the interactive process.

It's important that employers communicate directly with employees as part of the interactive process and that employees do likewise. Both sides must communicate directly, exchange essential information, and avoid delaying or obstructing the process. Thus direct communication and cooperation is expected of both the employer and the employee. As I noted in my earlier post, that means that employees may have to provide information to the employer as part of the interactive process.

Under the ADA, it is illegal to impose an accommodation on an employee, refuse a requested accommodation, or decide that no accommodations can be made at all without engaging in the interactive process. That includes consulting with the employee and evaluating the effectiveness of any possible  accommodations with the employee.  

A corollary to the interactive process is the the rule that employers must make individualized assessment when an employee requests a disability accommodation. That means that uniform, across-the-board policies that always apply to all employees may need to be adjusted as part of offering an employee a reasonable disability accommodation. Employers have to be flexible and cannot rigidly apply uniform policies and procedures when presented with a disability accommodation request.

Harley Erbe