ADA accommodations at work: What you need to know

You may already be aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make certain accommodations for employees with disabilities. But how can you make sure that your workplace is following the law? And how will it impact your business to provide ADA accommodations at work for employees with disabilities?

Despite myths to the contrary, accommodating employees with disabilities in the workplace doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. 

According to a survey by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 58 percent of accommodations cost nothing. And nearly all the rest involved a one-time cost that averaged only $500. What’s more, there are tax incentives such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and On-the-Job Training (OJT) dollars that can help cover the costs.

“The benefits of providing accommodations are considerable,” says James Emmett, a disability inclusion expert and lead workplace strategist for Understood. “They include employee retention, increased productivity, reduced workers’ compensation costs, and enhanced diversity and equity.”

But to provide employees and job seekers with reasonable ADA accommodations at work, you first need to understand what that means.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

The ADA says that a reasonable accommodation is “any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations are considered ‘reasonable’ if they do not create an undue hardship or a direct threat.”

As an employer, it’s important to think about what these words mean in your particular workplace. “A flex schedule may be a reasonable accommodation in most work environments but may not be in certain production-oriented positions,” says Emmett.

Also, making accommodations is a gradual process, not a one-time event. “When we started our inclusion initiative, we didn’t even have an access ramp to the building. The whole thing felt overwhelming,” says Kathi Stearman, employment compliance officer for Brown-Forman, a leading U.S. spirits and wine producer. 

Brown-Forman is now rated as one of the country’s most disability-friendly employers. “We learned that you’ve got to take one step at a time and eventually you get the job done,” Stearman adds. 

Here are four steps to successfully accommodating applicants and employees of all abilities: 

Step #1: Establish specific policies and procedures.

To get started, identify up-front how requests will be considered, managed, funded, and implemented. Then document your policies and procedures. “This makes it faster and easier to get the ball rolling and make decisions when an accommodation is requested,” says Emmett.

You can use a basic accommodations policy template from JAN or another online source. But it’s important to tailor that template to your particular company. 

For example, larger organizations might run accommodation requests through human resources. A smaller company may need to identify a staff executive as a point person. 

At Brown-Forman, employees can use a link on the company website to send a message to Stearman. “We make it as easy as possible for people to get what they need so they can work to the best of their ability,” she says. 

Step #2: Train managers to be able to identify requests.

Another essential part of a successful plan for ADA accommodations at work involves making sure managers, supervisors, and team leads can identify when an employee is asking for an accommodation or when an accommodation might be needed.

Requests for reasonable accommodations don’t legally need to include the words “reasonable accommodations” or even “disability.” Sometimes, they might be something like: “Could you send me a recap of that meeting?” or “I need to leave early every Thursday.”

These might look like asks that have nothing to do with a disability, but they could be disability-related. Managers need to know this and be aware of how to follow up with the employee to ensure they‘re providing a necessary accommodation.

When an employee uses a wheelchair, being aware that an accommodation may be needed is more straightforward. But some employees have invisible disabilities, such as mental health conditions. That can make it more difficult to identify when an employee needs an accommodation.

For example, an employee with depression may be late to work on several occasions because of their medication. A manager might discipline the employee for repeated tardiness. Because the employee is embarrassed or afraid of stigma, they may not disclose their disability. This could even result in the employee’s termination. 

A trained manager would know to ask the employee if there’s anything that’s causing the tardiness. If the employee says that their medication causes them to sleep late, a trained manager would then know that an accommodation might be necessary. They can help by following the policy and putting the employee in touch with the right people.

Step #3: Make ADA accommodation requests an interactive process.

Approach requests from a place of positivity. When a business is run in a certain way, it’s sometimes difficult for managers to picture how a change might work. For example, if an employee wants to sit instead of stand while working on the assembly line, a reflexive response might be, “I don’t think that’s possible.” 

Yet instead of looking for reasons to deny a request, “a successful interactive process starts from a place of positivity, of ‘Let’s figure out how to make this work,’” says Emmett. Use resources such as the JAN to learn what kinds of approaches may be helpful. They also have a list of accommodations by disability.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers an interactive process one in which employers and employees with disabilities work together to determine accommodations.

Take initiative and think ahead. And a good interactive process isn’t just about responsiveness. Often, it takes initiative and thinking ahead. 

“If I know a new employee will be needing accommodations, I’ve done my advance work before he starts. Making sure his desk is set up, the bathroom is right, scheduling a meeting so I’m the first person he sees right after orientation,” says Stearman. “I then make sure to follow up. At first, weekly, then eventually every month, just letting my employee know I want to help as best as I can.” 

Step #4: Build ADA accommodations at work — that work for everyone.

When it comes to accommodations, an employee might make a specific request, such as “I’d like a standing desk.” Or they will describe their challenge: “I can’t work at this desk because of my back pain.” Either way, the key to making an appropriate accommodation is to: 

  • Look at the essential functions of the job, considering along with the employee what their options are. 

  • Then work with the employee’s supervisor to put those accommodations in place.

Many accommodations can be put in place quickly, such as giving an employee a parking space closer to the building or a larger computer screen. Others may take more time, planning, and thought, such as developing a visual checklist of duties for an employee with challenges related to executive function. Those accommodations may become a new “best practice” throughout the organization. 

“It may be that having a visual checklist for what should be done in a certain situation is more efficient than expecting everyone to memorize that information,” says Emmett. 

Of course, employers can’t meet every accommodation request. But there’s a way to meet in the middle. 

At Brown-Forman, an employee with ADHD asked to work from home to reduce distractions. Due to the nature of his job and existing performance issues, Stearman instead arranged for him to work in a private conference room and provided noise-canceling headphones.

“It worked out for everyone,” says Stearman. “The way I look at it, an employee may not always get what they want, but I’ll make sure they get what they need.”

Accommodating disabilities in the workplace takes planning, but it can become a natural part of doing business. Working together makes all the difference.

“Your accommodation process is enhanced by consistently seeking input from the employee with a disability and, if that person is supported by a community organization, actively looping that organization into the process,” says Emmett. With their help, your accommodations initiative can take shape and benefit everyone.


Explore related topics

Read next