Providing reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities is a legal obligation for federal agencies, and every manager should understand how reasonable accommodation requests are processed. Not only is accommodating disabilities the “legal” thing to do, it provides a valuable source of capable, motivated employees who would not otherwise be able to work.
In general, managers should be aware that agencies have a reasonable accommodation policy. That policy should be consulted and followed whenever a disability/reasonable accommodation issue surfaces in the workplace. Managers should also be aware that the law on disability is complicated and is evolving. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recent regulations on the Americans with Disabilities Act expand the universe of who is disabled and what disabilities must be accommodated. Accommodating a disability is best handled by the manager as part of a team that includes legal, EEO and human resources.
The when, where, what, why and how of reasonable accommodation:
When: A disability must be accommodated when an employee has a physical or mental disability that is shown to exist by medical evidence. The disability must interfere with a major life function.
A reasonable accommodation need only be provided to a qualified disabled employee, which is an employee who, with or without the accommodation, could perform the essential function of the job without endangering himself or others. An agency does not have to provide an accommodation if it can show that to do so would impose an undue hardship on its operations.
Current law has an expansive interpretation of what it means to interfere with a major life function, defined broadly as everything from walking and seeing to thinking and getting along with others.
The general rule on undue hardship is that cost is not a factor. It is, however, an undue hardship for an agency to create a job for a disabled employee or to displace another employee to accommodate someone who is disabled.
Where: Telework is a great accommodation for the disabled. It is frequently granted to disabled employees who can work effectively from home, but for reasons related to the disability have difficulty getting to the office. Accommodating a disabled employee is not limited to the confines of a general telework policy, and an agency may authorize additional telework for a disabled employee, so long as the employee can still perform the essential function of the job while on telework.
What: The list of accommodations is expansive and includes job modifications, part-time schedules, reassignments, readers and interpreters.
One of the best sources of assistance for federal managers in accommodating the disabled is the Defense Department’s Computer/Electronic Accommodation Program (CAP). CAP provides free training and assistance for electronic and computer equipment to accommodate the disabled. Its website, CAP.mil, has a wealth of options on how to accommodate a disabled employee.
Why: A failure to accommodate a disability when there is a legal obligation to do so is a violation of EEO law and can lead to EEO damages and accountability.
More important than the EEO hammer is the positive impact that results from having a productive and capable employee who is disabled but needs help to get to work or accomplish his or her duties.
How: Accommodating a disability involves the disabled employee, the manager and agency experts. As mentioned above, there is an agency procedure that sets out this process. The determination of whether and how to accommodate a disability takes place by this process. At a minimum, the process should include a means of receiving and evaluating medical evidence concerning the employee’s disability.
Finally, do not be afraid to ask for help. The rules on accommodation have shifted in favor of the disabled and deserve careful consideration.