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How to Request a Reasonable Accommodation at Work

If you are a qualified individual with a disability, and you require a reasonable accommodation to perform your essential job duties, now is the time to submit your request. Researchers have found that about half of the employees who would benefit from reasonable accommodations in the workplace lack them, even though employees with accommodations are significantly more likely to remain employed.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act), and their state and local counterparts require employers to accommodate qualified individuals with an actual disability or a record of a disability, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. However, these laws provide little guidance about how to request a reasonable accommodation from your employer.

Therefore, this article answers common questions about which employers must provide reasonable accommodations, which employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations, and the circumstances under which employers must grant reasonable-accommodation requests. It also provides practical tips about how to request a reasonable accommodation and describes the interactive process that occurs after you make a request. Finally, this article discusses the legal recourse you may have if your employer illegally denies your request for a reasonable accommodation, participates in the process in bad faith, or retaliates against you for making a request.

1. What is a reasonable accommodation, and why might I need one?

Under federal law, “reasonable accommodations” include three types of workplace modifications:

    • Changes to the work environment or the way in which a position is typically performed that enable you to perform the essential functions of your position;
    • Adjustments to the application process that enable you to be considered for the position; and
    • Changes that enable you to enjoy benefits and privileges of employment—such as training, services, and social functions—equal to those enjoyed by your similarly situated coworkers without disabilities.

If you are a qualified individual with a disability, a reasonable accommodation enables you to perform your essential job functions, apply for a job, or receive the same benefits as other employees. If you cannot fully perform your essential job duties without an accommodation, you should request one before performance-based issues arise.

2. Must my employer provide a reasonable accommodation?

Both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act require covered employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability. The ADA applies to private entities that employ fifteen or more employees, as well as state and local governments. The Rehabilitation Act applies to the executive branch of the federal government and certain federal government contractors, federal subcontractors, and recipients of federal financial assistance.

If you work for an employer that is not covered under the federal anti-discrimination laws, a state or local law still may require your employer to provide reasonable accommodations. For example, the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA) is a very broad, employee-friendly statute that applies to D.C. employers with one or more employees. As another example, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (MFEPA) applies to employers with fifteen or more employees, but it counts independent contractors toward the numeric threshold.

3. Do I qualify for a reasonable accommodation?

To qualify for a reasonable accommodation, you must be a qualified individual with a disability or a record of a disability.

        a. Am I a qualified individual?

A “qualified” individual is an employee or applicant who meets an employer’s job requirements with respect to educational background, employment experience, skills, licenses, and other job-related qualifications.

To be “qualified,” you must be able to perform the essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation. Importantly, not every job duty is “essential”; some duties are incidental. To determine whether a function is essential, we must consider whether:

    • the duty appears in the written position description;
    • current or past employees who held your position actually performed the duty;
    • how much of your time you spend performing the function;
    • how central the function is to your position, including whether your position exists specifically to perform the function;
    • how many other employees could perform the duty;
    • the level of skill or expertise needed to perform the duty;
    • the consequences if your employer did not require you to perform the function; and
    • the terms of any applicable collective-bargaining agreements.

        b. Do I have a qualifying disability? 

Whether a particular condition constitutes a disability under the law must be decided on a case-by-case basis, based on an individualized assessment. Nonetheless, Congress has made clear that the definition of “disability” should be construed broadly to maximize coverage. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)(A).

Against this backdrop, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

              i. Physical or mental impairment.

A physical or mental impairment is any mental or physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems. This definition encompasses intellectual disabilities, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and certain learning disabilities.

              ii. Substantially limits.

The “substantially limits” language means that the disability significantly restricts your “ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities.” Croley v. Republican Nat’l Comm., 759 A.2d 682, 700 n.17 (D.C. 2000). An inability to perform a single, particular job does not result in a substantial limitation on a major life activity.

However, an impairment does not need to prevent the activity or severely limit it. Indeed, the “substantially limits” standard was not intended to be onerous.

              iii. Major life activity.

The ADA provides a non-exhaustive list of major life activities, which includes: caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

In addition, other major life activities include: “the operation of a major bodily function,” such as “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i)(i)-(ii).

              iv. Examples.

While the federal regulations do not provide an exhaustive list of qualifying disabilities, they specify some impairments that substantially limit major life activities:

    • deafness;
    • blindness;
    • intellectual disabilities;
    • partially or completely missing limbs or mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair;
    • autism;
    • cancer;
    • cerebral palsy;
    • diabetes;
    • epilepsy;
    • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection;
    • multiple sclerosis;
    • muscular dystrophy; and
    • major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(3)(iii).

4. When should I request a reasonable accommodation?

You may request a reasonable accommodation at any time during your employment. You do not need to notify your employer about your disability during the hiring process (unless you require an accommodation to apply). If your disability is not obvious, you may want to notify your potential employer after it makes a hiring decision so that your disability does not impact the decision. You do not waive your right to request a reasonable accommodation because you did not request one during the application process or upon accepting the job offer.

When possible, you should request an accommodation as soon as you become aware of the need for it (but preferably after you accept the job).

Reasonable accommodations apply proactively—not retroactively. If your disability caused you to violate an employment policy or standard, obtaining a reasonable accommodation after the fact will not excuse a past violation or preclude your employer from taking disciplinary action. Therefore, it is important to seek a reasonable accommodation before your disability affects your performance.

5. To whom should I submit my request?

Submit your request to your direct supervisor and a human resources representative. Your supervisor will find out about your request, regardless. If your supervisor retaliates against you for submitting a request, or discriminates against you based on your disability, you will need to show that they knew about your disability and/or request in order to establish a legal claim. Copying your supervisor on your request eliminates their plausible deniability.

6. How should I submit my request?

Legally, you do not need to submit your request in any particular format. You don’t need to use “magic words” or cite the law. You should state in writing that: (1) you are requesting a workplace modification; and (2) your medical condition (as opposed to some other reason) necessitates the change.

It is critical that you document your request to avoid any disputes about whether you requested an accommodation and what, specifically, you requested. Consider submitting your request by email so that you have a time-stamped record. Alternatively, if you must submit your request in-person or over the phone, promptly follow-up with a written confirmation that details your oral request.

7. What accommodation(s) should I request?

Ideally, you should work with your medical provider to brainstorm a list of accommodations that will allow you to perform your essential job functions. Your request will be stronger if your healthcare professional supports it.

Provide your healthcare professional with a copy of your job description before you discuss reasonable accommodations with them. Do not request that your employer eliminate essential job functions as an accommodation. (If you cannot perform the essential functions of your job, you are not “qualified” under the law.)

Some examples of reasonable accommodations include:

    • obtaining or modifying equipment or devices;
    • providing a remote or hybrid work schedule;
    • part-time or modified work schedules – including adjusting start and end times, providing breaks, and modifying when you perform certain duties;
    • job restructuring – including redistributing marginal, non-essential job duties that you cannot perform due to a disability, and altering when or how you perform a function;
    • permitting you to use accrued paid leave, and after it is exhausted, providing unpaid leave;
    • reassignment to a vacant, equivalent position for which you are qualified—with or without a reasonable accommodation—even if you are not the “best qualified” individual for the position;
    • adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies;
    • providing readers and interpreters; and
    • making the workplace readily accessible and usable.

See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(2).

If you need help getting started, consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN)’s list of potential accommodations. JAN organizes its extensive list of accommodations by corresponding disability, limitation, and work-related function.

8. If I am a qualified individual with a disability, must my employer provide a reasonable accommodation?

Yes—unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship. An “undue hardship” is significant difficulty or expense incurred by your employer from a financial or operational standpoint.

No bright-line rule indicates when an undue hardship exists. Rather, several factors must be considered:

    • the nature and cost of the proposed accommodation (accounting for available tax credits, deductions, and outside funding);
    • the financial resources of the facility, the number of employees at the facility, and the effect on expenses and resources;
    • the employer’s overall financial resources, number of employees, and the number, type, and location of its facilities;
    • the employer’s type of operation (including the composition, structure, and functions of its workforce); and
    • the impact of the proposed accommodation on the operation of the facility, including other employees’ ability to perform their duties and the facility’s ability to conduct business.

Your request for a reasonable accommodation does not cause undue hardship simply because non-disabled employees are not entitled to the accommodation. Similarly, your employer cannot establish an undue hardship by claiming that the accommodation would negatively impact the morale of non-disabled employees.

9. Must my employer provide my preferred accommodation?

Not necessarily. Your employer need not grant your preferred accommodation, so long as it provides an effective accommodation. Further, if your employer rejects your preferred accommodation in favor of another effective accommodation, it does not need to establish that your preferred accommodation imposes an undue hardship.

If, however, your employer rejects your preferred accommodation and provides an ineffective accommodation, you should be prepared to explain why it is ineffective—preferably with a supporting opinion from your medical provider.

10. What happens after I request a reasonable accommodation?

After you request a reasonable accommodation, your employer must engage in the interactive process to identify an accommodation that would enable you to perform your essential job duties effectively. The interactive process is an informal process—“a flexible give-and-take” that enables your employer to obtain relevant information about the accommodation(s) that would enable you to keep working. Ward v. McDonald, 762 F.3d 24, 32 (D.C. Cir. 2014). Both you and your employer must participate in the interactive process in good faith and must make reasonable efforts to determine the specific accommodations that you need.

11. May my employer request medical documentation?

If your disability is not obvious, your employer may request limited medical documentation about the nature, severity, and anticipated duration of your limitations; how they impact your ability to perform your job; and the measures that would enable you to complete your key functions.

You do not need to provide your employer with unfettered access to your complete medical history, but you must respond to your employer’s reasonable requests for follow-up information. If you fail to provide reasonable documentation, your employer could lawfully deny your request.

12. Must I undergo a medical evaluation by my employer’s preferred healthcare provider? 

If you and/or your medical professional do not provide sufficient information about your disability and need for an accommodation, your employer should follow up and give you an opportunity to correct the deficiencies. If you still don’t provide the necessary documentation, your employer may require you to report to its healthcare professional for an evaluation of your disability and need for an accommodation.

Importantly, any such examination must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. As such, the exam may evaluate only whether you have a disability and any functional limits that require a reasonable accommodation.

13. My employer denied my request for a reasonable accommodation.

If your employer flatly rejects your request for a reasonable accommodation without exploring alternatives, ignores your request, refuses to participate in the interactive process in good faith, or illegally denies your request, you may have legal claims under the federal, state, and/or local anti-discrimination laws.

        a. Re-engage your employer.

As a next step, try to continue the interactive process by re-engaging your employer. Ask them to provide a written decision on your request, and once you understand their position, address any stumbling blocks. For example, if your employer relied on incorrect or outdated medical information, clarify your medical history. If your employer claims that you failed to submit medical documentation, provide the outstanding information. If your employer claims that your request would impose an undue hardship, explore other reasonable and effective alternatives.

Bring it to your employer’s attention (in writing) if it altogether refuses to consider or respond to your request. Failure to initiate the interactive process is evidence that your employer has acted in bad faith.

While re-engaging your employer may help resolve the impasse, do not waste too much time trying to bridge the gap. If you have legal claims as a result of your employer’s conduct, you need to pursue those claims expeditiously and comply with strict filing deadlines. Continued outreach to your employer will not delay the filing deadlines.

        b. Consider filing a complaint.

If you need help negotiating a reasonable accommodation or you cannot overcome the impasse with your employer, consult an experienced employment attorney, who can help you file an internal and/or external failure-to-accommodate complaint.

To prevail on a claim for failure to accommodate, you must establish that: (1) you were a qualified individual with a disability; (2) your employer had notice of your disability; and (3) your employer denied your request for a reasonable accommodation or participated in the process in bad faith.

The applicable filing procedures and deadlines for such complaints vary, depending on whether you are a public or private employee and where you file your complaint. Although the filing procedures and deadlines are beyond the scope of this article, it is critical that all employees file their complaints on time and with the proper entity. If you fail to do so, you will lose your right to sue and to hold your employer accountable. An employment attorney will help you navigate the filing requirements, make strategic decisions about where and when to file, and ensure that your complaint sets forth a legally actionable claim.

14. What should I do if my employer retaliates against me?

The law prohibits your employer from retaliating against you because you requested a reasonable accommodation—conduct that constitutes “protected activity” under the law. Similarly, if you have a reasonable belief that your employer illegally denied your request for an accommodation, participated in the interactive process in bad faith, or retaliated against you for making a request, and you submit an informal or formal complaint to this effect, your employer may not retaliate against you on the basis of your complaint.

If you suspect that your employer is retaliating against you, you should consult an employment attorney to evaluate your potential legal claims.

In particular, to establish a claim for retaliation, you must show: (1) that you engaged in protected activity; (2) that your employer took materially adverse action against you; and (3) a causal link between the materially adverse action and your protected activity.

After you satisfy these requirements, your employer must offer a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its actions. If it does so, you must then present evidence that your employer’s conduct was retaliatory and/or that the justification it provided was false and pre-textual. (Such evidence enables a reasonable jury to infer that your employer’s conduct was retaliatory.)

Again, you must file your retaliation claims with the proper entity and comply with strict time limits in order to preserve your legal claims.

Helpful Resources:

    1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA,” No. 915.002 (Oct. 17, 2002).
    2. U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, “Employment Rights: Who Has Them and Who Enforces Them.” 
    3. Job Accommodation Network, “A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations.”

Contact us if you need assistance requesting a reasonable accommodation, navigating the interactive process, or filing a complaint. We have guided many employees through the process and have helped them negotiate accommodations that enable them to perform their jobs effectively. In addition, we have experience litigating disability-discrimination and retaliation claims in administrative tribunals and in court, in instances where employers have refused to provide the legally required adjustments.

This blog post has been prepared for informational purposes only. This blog post is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal advice. The information contained in this blog post is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, and the receipt of this information does not constitute attorney-client privileged legal advice.