Does Your Institution Have a Disability Accommodation Policy? It Should

Does Your Institution Have a Disability Accommodation Policy? It Should

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  The ADA also requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations for the known disabilities of an individual in order to allow the individual to perform the essential functions of the job.  A stand-alone ADA Accommodation Policy demonstrates the institution’s commitment to the law by prohibiting discrimination and encouraging reasonable accommodations.  A good policy will establish a workable and understandable employee accommodation request procedure, require medical documentation where warranted, and generally describe the interactive process that occurs once an accommodation request is made.  By maintaining and following its policy, the institution can maintain a consistent approach, reduce risk when disability accommodation questions arise, and better defend disability discrimination claims.

In accordance with the ADA, an individual is considered disabled when a physical or mental impairment substantially limits a major life activity.  Employers must reasonably accommodate ADA disabilities in such a way that allows the individual to perform the essential functions of the job. That generally means the employer must provide some assistive device (such as an ergonomic chair), change the employee’s schedule (with flexible or reduced hours), or even allow the employee to telecommute, take a leave of absence, or transfer to an open position, if doing so would allow the disabled person to complete all essential job tasks. 

In order to determine what accommodations are reasonable in a given situation, the employer and employee must engage in an informal interactive process where the employee’s limitations are described and possible solutions are discussed which would allow the employee to continue performing the essential job functions.  Both the employer and employee must engage in the interactive process in good faith.

An employer’s ADA Accommodation Policy will greatly support the institution’s good faith requirements by explaining both the accommodation request and interactive processes in detail. For example, the policy should describe how accommodation requests are made, by whom, to whom, and any supporting documents necessary.  In this regard, the policy should require that any accommodation request be made by the employee in the first instance.  In that way, the employer cannot get boxed into a position of guessing when an employee accommodation is necessary, which is important because generally, unless a disability is obvious (e.g., a wheelchair-bound employee’s required task of reaching materials well over her head) an employer suggesting accommodation could be accused of “perceived as” disability discrimination.  

The policy should also explain the employer’s requirement for providing medical information, the expectation that the employee cooperate in all such requests, and the consequences of failing to cooperate.  The employee, and the supporting physician, should also be required to identify the specific accommodation being sought in order to assist the employer’s analysis, eliminate employer second guessing, and require the employee to identify a potential solution to allow job performance.  While the institution seeks to understand the exact accommodation being requested by the employee, a good policy will also explain that only reasonable accommodations will be made after the employer and employee engage in the interactive process.  In that way, the employee clearly understands that the employer’s obligation is only to allow what is reasonable under the circumstances.
Disability accommodations are influenced by many factors including the nature of the disability, the employee’s job, and the work environment.   As a result, it is important to omit from an ADA Accommodation Policy any reference to the employer’s treatment of specific accommodation requests. Recently, the EEOC opined that disability accommodation policies which too specifically address leaves of absence or telecommuting, for example, are improperly limited and unlawful.  See EEOC Informal Discussion Letter dated 2.25.14. Thus, when drafting an ADA Accommodation Policy, focus on process, put employees on notice, and demonstrate the institution’s commitment to providing reasonable accommodations and preventing disability discrimination in the workplace. 

This article appears in the Summer 2015 edition of Saul Ewing’s Higher Education Highlights newsletter. Click here to see the complete newsletter.

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