Are Employers Required to Accommodate Employees with Disabilities?

Global HR

​About 18.6 million workers in the U.S. have a disability, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And only 21 percent of people ages 16 and older with disabilities are employed or are actively looking for work.

Zac Bradley is a disability rights advocate who serves as a vocational specialist with The Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta focusing on medical treatment and rehabilitation for people with brain and spinal cord injuries or diseases. In an interview with
SHRM Online, he discussed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the importance of remote work for employees with disabilities and simple ways companies can support these workers.

SHRM Online: The pandemic has in some ways helped people with disabilities secure employment through the increase in remote working options. But more companies are mandating a return to the office. How will this affect workers with disabilities?

Zac BradleyBradley: My hope is that it doesn’t. Over the past two years, the pandemic has given people with disabilities evidence that they can
do their job effectively while working remotely. A reasonable accommodation should be given to someone with a disability who can do the essential job duties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers have been able to prove that. They’ve been at home doing their job.

However, employers do have discretion through the ADA on what is classified as reasonable. The ADA doesn’t mandate anything, and the employer has the right to say “no” based on an accommodation resulting in an undue hardship. You cannot go to an employer and say, “You must give this to me.” I’ve heard that so many times. That “you owe me” attitude doesn’t work well.

For example, let’s say an employer has a general rule of thumb that everybody must be in the building to work. They can say, “We don’t have to accommodate this because we want everyone to be in building,” which would make working remotely an unreasonable accommodation request for workers with disabilities.

When an employer declines an accommodation request, then legally there must be an
interactive process. The hope is that you can meet on middle ground. If you can’t meet in the middle, then that leaves it to the possibility of litigation based on discrimination. But this would need to be proven by facts based on the denial of the accommodation request.

I would advise workers with disabilities to ask about an employer’s flexibility to work from home before making an accommodation request—maybe not every day, but some days based on the employer’s preference.

Workers with disabilities should approach their employer with a level of humility, saying something along the lines of, “I’ve been doing my work well during the pandemic and would love to continue to work from home on some days.” I would also encourage them to tie in their work-from-home request with the reason it is beneficial for them regarding their disability; this needs to be a practical reason rather than an arbitrary one.

I would hope the employer has humility, as well. My hope is that the employer values that person. They should consider whether this person has brought benefit to the company and whether they really want to train a brand-new employee.

When considering productivity and business flow, companies should see how they can support this person. They should try to provide some level of flexibility to workers with disabilities.

SHRM Online: Many people with disabilities grapple with the decision of whether to disclose their disability with their employer. When is the right time to let their employer know?

Bradley: Disability disclosure is a give or take; you can do it too soon or too late. What I tell folks is, “How comfortable are you with your disability? Do you ‘own’ that you have the diagnosis you have?” If so, then we can have a conversation on when to disclose it. I recommend that they disclose it when they feel that they will need an accommodation.

If I go into a job and I’m a wheelchair user, I can’t hide that I have a wheelchair. But for folks who have a hidden disability, they do grapple with telling their employer or not telling them. They can refuse to disclose their disability because maybe they’ve done their jobs in the past well enough to not need an accommodation.

However, if they get to a job that is more difficult and the disability is hindering their ability to perform tasks, that is the moment to say, “Hey, I do have a disability and I need help to set myself up for success.”

You want to do that at the right time, typically before the job performance becomes poor. If you wait, then it’s a tad too late. They must strongly consider letting their supervisor know the moment an issue will happen so that they can be more effective.

An employer will know that disability has been destigmatized when, in casual conversation, an employee is sharing their invisible disability. In the jobs I’ve had, disability is intermingled into the culture. You know people’s needs, and because you respect and value them, you provide the support so that everyone can thrive. That’s when you know you have destigmatized disability and that a culture is inclusive to people with all disabilities.

SHRM Online: What are some simple ways that organizations can create a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities?

Bradley: One way is to celebrate disability awareness—not just National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but all the specific disability awareness months. This shows employees that they are aware and that they do care [about their well-being]. That then opens conversations on these topics to raise further awareness.

Supervisors should ask, “How can I best support you?” Asking that question opens the door to supporting workers with disabilities. Having the employer say that shows that they really want you here. As an employer, it’s critical to listen to their feedback and understand what they need to be successful so that their talent and skills shine.

It’s not really an accommodation request. It’s just supporting people to help them be more effective.

Disability is part of that equation in diversity, equity and inclusion. People should never forget that. Workers don’t always vocalize their disability. Some voices are strong. However, an employer should know that folks with disabilities’ voices might not be as strong because of their perpetual stigmatized nature. We, as a society, must look out for them.

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