Could I have asked for a reasonable accommodation instead?
By Susan Webb
Q. I recently quit my job because I need an extra 15-minute break each day to attend to a medical condition I have. I’ve been told I could have asked for a “reasonable accommodation” instead. Since I will need this additional break on any job I work, is this accommodation thing real? Or should I expect that this barrier will keep me from ever working again? I really liked that job.
A. Unfortunately, this happens all too often. We look at job descriptions to apply for jobs and see the wording on the bottom: “Reasonable accommodation for a disability will be provided.” But we do not know what that means. So yes, reasonable accommodation is a real thing.
In most cases, an employee will not know until they are actually doing the job that they need an accommodation. Or they may not have had a disability when they started the job, but acquired it later. Believe it or not, the need for extra breaks is a common request.
Q. So tell me about this. Is it some sort of employment right?
A. You have a legal right to a “reasonable” accommodation if you have the knowledge, skills, ability, education and experience to perform the major tasks of the job you seek. An employer cannot deny you the job or deny helping you keep it just because of your disability. You are not entitled to the job, but you must be evaluated and considered like all other applicants who do not have a disability.
If you discover the need for an accommodation after you are hired, the law requires that your employer make the accommodation then too.
Q. What about the extra break I need? Is that considered “reasonable”?
A. That sounds like a reasonable accommodation for almost any employer. But any accommodation’s reasonableness depends on the size of the business, its financial capacity, and whether there are other workers available to do the tasks you would not do during that extra 15 minutes each day.
Q. What are the steps involved in my example?
A. The process is similar for most accommodations. Any accommodation request, discussions about what might be needed, and the final decision must be done with you involved at each step. Most employers are familiar with these processes, but you need to know them more than anyone.
Here is what you should do to make the request and maintain control of the process. After all, it is your job and your disability. Who knows more about the way those two factors intersect than you?
1. To qualify for an accommodation, you must first prove you have a disability. Start by visiting the Ability360 website at www.ability360.org. Under “Employment” in the drop-down menu (in the Programs tab), click on the webinar entitled “Disability Disclosure in Employment.” This webinar covers when disclosing your disability (or not) makes sense. For example, you should disclose your disability when requesting a reasonable accommodation.
2. Evaluate the job you do and what the accommodation request specifically requires. You are the one who knows the nuances of the job and how your disability impacts that. Be specific and include a clear solution that is based on your knowledge of the job and your disability. Your request should focus on the job tasks and the accommodation needed to do the job task – not on your disability.
Consider these two requests for the same accommodation:
A: I am requesting a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I have diabetes and need additional breaks to test my blood sugar and administer an insulin injection.
B: I am requesting a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I need one extra 15 minute break during each workday at 3 pm. I need to leave my workstation to travel to the nearest restroom in the northwest section of our building that affords the availability and privacy I need. I would be willing to stay 15 minutes later at the end of the day to make up the time.
The first example requires the employer to make judgments about your disability based on his or her knowledge of your diabetes (medical diagnosis). It does not tell the employer the specifics of what you need for the break such as the time and the environment needed.
The second example is specific about the need for a break without mentioning the disability itself. It takes all the judgement about the disability out of the conversation and focuses instead on how to change your work environment so you can perform your job.
3. Make your request to whoever handles personnel matters within the company, not your immediate supervisor.
4. Write your initial request in the format illustrated. A simple paragraph in an e-mail will suffice. Your HR contact at the company will likely have a form for you to complete and will delineate and start the more formal process.
5. Your employer may ask for a doctor’s statement to validate your disability. When requesting this from your doctor, you should take the following documents with you to the appointment: a) the written request for the accommodation you submitted; b) a detailed copy of your job description; and c) any photographs or descriptions of the workplace. Unless you provide enough information with the documents specified here, the doctor cannot be of much help to you or the employer.
6. Once you get the doctor’s note (make sure you keep a copy) and fill out any other forms given to you by your employer and you have clearly expressed what you need, the process should be pretty simple. Most accommodation requests are not expensive or difficult. Your approach should be one where you a) have thoroughly thought out what you need; b) expect to get cooperation from your HR representative and that it will not be adversarial; c) expect it will not take a long time and have clearly asked how long the request will take to get approval; d) stay on top of the request yourself and do not wait for others to communicate with you first; and e) always remember to focus on the job, not your disability.
Q. What resources are available to help me request a reasonable accommodation?
A. Start with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) at www.askjan.org. You might also check with associations that represent your disability. Rarely does something like this become contentious if you approach it with a positive attitude and are well-versed on exactly what you need.
VP of Employment Ability360
If you have questions or comments, please e-mail Susan Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.