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3 big myths (and truths) about workplace accommodations

By Claire Odom

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees workers with disabilities the right to reasonable accommodations at work, so they can have an equal chance to do their jobs.

But lots of people might be suspicious or feel frustrated when they see a co-worker using an accommodation. There’s not always a lot of information out there about what workplace accommodations are, or how they function. 

Here’s the truth: Accommodations make the workplace better for everyone. Here are three of the biggest myths about workplace accommodations.

Myth 1: Workplace accommodations are “special treatment”

When everyone’s under a lot of pressure at work — particularly in a physically demanding job — employees might feel some irritation if they notice a co-worker using an accommodation. Sometimes, it can lead to perceptions of favoritism, especially if the co-worker’s disability isn’t obvious. 

For example, one team member might be seen taking more frequent breaks than everyone else. People might start to think that the co-worker is getting “special treatment,” or that they’re bending the rules.

The facts: Accommodations aren’t favoritism — they’re designed to give everyone an equal chance to do their best at work. Any accommodation addresses a real need. But employers are required to keep their employees’ health information confidential. That means others on the team will not necessarily know the details behind an accommodation.

For instance, the co-worker in the example above might be taking more frequent breaks because she’s managing diabetes. In that case, the schedule flexibility could be an accommodation that she’s worked out with HR so she can do her job while staying healthy. The accommodation is not special treatment. It actually puts her on the same level as everyone else.

Myth 2: Employers aren’t allowed to discipline or fire employees who have accommodations

If you’re confused about this point, you’re not alone. Even employers and managers are sometimes worried about the rules surrounding the accommodations process. Some may go so far as to avoid discussing accommodations for fear of breaking the law. 

Think of this scenario from ADA.gov: Two people apply for a job, and one of the job requirements is to type 75 words per minute. One applicant has a disability, and with a reasonable accommodation, they type 50 words per minute in the interview. The other applicant doesn’t have a disability, and they type 75 words per minute in the interview. Does the employer have to hire the person with a disability, even though they didn’t meet the requirement?

The facts: While reasonable accommodations are legally guaranteed, all employees — including those who rely on accommodations — must meet their employer’s performance standards. Employees with and without disabilities are expected to perform the essential functions of their jobs to standards set forth by their employers. That means employees with disabilities can be held to the same standards as everyone else.

In the example above, ADA.gov says the employer can hire the applicant who types 75 words per minute, as long as that’s an essential function of the job.

Myth 3: Accommodations are not relevant to me 

People who don’t consider themselves to have a disability might assume that they’ll never need to think much about workplace accommodations. They might think that accommodations are something that can only apply to someone else.

The facts: In truth, most of us will need a workplace accommodation at some point during our careers. Whether it’s flexible scheduling to undergo cancer treatments, time off to address a sudden mental health challenge, a standing desk to accommodate a back injury, or frequent breaks to deal with chronic pain, accommodations can help us do our jobs. And of course, anyone can acquire a new disability at any point in the future.

Even if you never end up needing a specific accommodation at work, it’s likely that accommodations will still make your job easier. For one thing, your co-workers will have the tools they need to do their jobs, which benefits everyone. 

And it’s been shown that accommodations can lead to a more functional workplace in general. For example, an employer might add images to a training manual to help one specific employee, and then find out that the images are helping everyone learn the material more quickly.

Although myths about workplace accommodations are certainly out there, the fact is that accommodations are a powerful way to make workplaces better for everyone. 

Looking for more facts about workplace accommodations and your rights at work? Check out our downloadable fact sheets:

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom