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Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA)

VII.  What Is a "Reasonable Accommodation?"

If a person is a "qualified individual" and he or she has a disability, an employer must make any "reasonable accommodation" to a job or workplace that will help him or her to perform a job or even to apply for a job.

An accommodation is "reasonable" if it does not cause the employer "undue hardship."

"Undue hardship" means a significant difficulty or expense, when considered in the context of the employer's size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of its operation.

What are some "Reasonable Accommodations" for employees with psychiatric disabilities?
"Reasonable accommodations" for a person with a psychiatric difficulty might include allowing flexible leave, requiring supervisors to put instructions in writing, giving the employee a flexible schedule or modifying the employee's work environment.

Example 1:  Employees at a retail store work in shifts from 8-5, 10-7, and 12-9, and employees are reassigned to a different shift every month. An employee with a psychiatric disability needs to attend weekly meetings with his therapist, whose office hours are from 9-5. It would be a reasonable accommodation to only assign that employee to the 10-7 and the 12-9 shifts.

Example 2:  An employee at an accounting firm with major depression takes a medication that makes her extremely sensitive to noise. She shares an office with two other employees whose job includes answering and talking on the telephone, and she has difficulty concentrating on her own work. Many of the essential functions of her job do not need to be performed on the employer's premises. Allowing her a flexible schedule so that she can telecommute would be a reasonable accommodation.

Example 3:  A retail store does not allow employees who work as cashiers to have open beverages when they are at their checkout station. A person with a psychiatric disability takes several medications that make her mouth extremely dry, and she needs to drink a beverage at least once an hour. A reasonable accommodation would be to modify the policy prohibiting open beverages at the checkout station.

May an employer require an employee to go to a health care professional of the employer's (rather than the employee's) choice for purposes of documenting need for accommodation and disability?
The ADA does not prevent an employer from requiring an employee to go to an appropriate health professional of the employer's choice if the employee initially provides insufficient information to substantiate that he or she has an ADA disability and needs a reasonable accommodation. Of course, any examination must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. If an employer requires an employee to go to a health professional of the employer's choice, the employer must pay all costs associated with the visit(s).

May an employer tell other employees that an individual is receiving a reasonable accommodation when employees ask questions about a coworker with a disability?
No. An employer may not disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation because this usually amounts to a disclosure that the individual has a disability. The ADA specifically prohibits the disclosure of medical information except in certain limited situations, which do not include disclosure to coworkers (see EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation).

How do I ask for a reasonable accommodation?
A person may ask for a reasonable accommodation at any time.

A person must tell his or her employer that, because of a medical condition, he or she needs an adjustment or change at work.

Using the words "ADA" or "reasonable accommodation" is not required.

Example:  An employee tells her supervisor, "I'm having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments I'm undergoing." This is a request for a reasonable accommodation.

A family member, friend, health professional, or other representative you authorize, may ask for a reasonable accommodation on another person's behalf.

A request does not have to be made in writing, but it is a good idea to write out a request in case any problem arises later on.

If an employer asks for evidence that a person's medical condition limits one or more major life activities and that he or she needs an accommodation, the employee will need to provide a letter from a professional who is treating him or her. This could be a doctor or a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a vocational rehabilitation therapist, or any other licensed mental health professional.

Because the law includes persons with a history of a disability, you may provide a letter from an appropriate professional who has treated you in the past.

It is best to discuss accommodations with the professional who is treating you or who treated you in the past so that person will be able to document the need for a particular accommodation.

Additional Info:  Disability Law Center, Inc. (the Protection and Advocacy agency for Massachusetts) has posted a Frequently Asked Questions regarding reasonable accommodations on their website (opens in a new browser window).

VIII.  When Can an Employer Discipline or Fire an Employee with a Psychiatric Disability?

If a person with a psychiatric disability breaks the employer's rules of conduct or does not follow policies, the employer may discipline or fire the employee under certain circumstances, even if the employee's behavior is a result of his or her psychiatric disability.

Example:  An employee with panic disorder feels a panic attack coming on, and she feels that she needs to leave the office immediately. She does not tell anyone that she is leaving. The employer's policy is that employees may not leave earlier than scheduled without a supervisor's permission. The employer may discipline her as long as the employer would impose the same discipline on an employee without a disability.

If an employee does not tell the employer that he or she needs a change in policy because of a medical condition, the employer does not need to make a reasonable accommodation.

Example:  The same employer has a policy that employees who have been notified three times of a disciplinary violation will be fired. On two more occasions, the employee leaves before her shift ends because of her medical condition without obtaining her supervisor's permission. The employer may fire the employee even though she needed to leave because of her psychiatric disability.

If an employer believes that an employee is a direct threat to the health or safety of him/herself or others, the employer may refuse to hire the person and may fire him or her.

An employer must have objective, factual evidence that the employee cannot do his or her job without directly threatening health or safety at that time, even with a reasonable accommodation.

An employer may discipline or fire an employee who refuses to follow instructions or orders if following instructions or orders is an essential function of the job, even if there is a connection between the employee's behavior and his or her psychiatric disability, as long as the employer would discipline or fire employees without a disability for the same behavior.

Example:  A reference librarian frequently loses her temper at work and shouts at patrons and her co-workers. After receiving a suspension after several incidents, she discloses her disability, states that it causes her behavior, and requests a leave of absence for treatment. The employer may discipline her because she violated a conduct standard -- a rule prohibiting disruptive behavior towards patrons and coworkers -- that is job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity. The employer, however, must grant her request for a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship, to enable her to meet this conduct standard in the future.

NextWhat If an Employer Refuses My Request for a Reasonable Accommodation?

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