A small business guide to reasonable accommodation

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees with a disability from discrimination in the workplace. Under this act, most employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for employees who have a disability so that they are able to complete their jobs.

For employers, especially new and small businesses, this language may seem confusing. What exactly is a reasonable accommodation, and how far does the law require an employer to go? In general, employers must provide any accommodation that is needed for the employee to complete the job, so long as it does not cause an undue hardship or burden on the business. Typical accommodations for disabled employees include:

  • Accessibility to the workplace, such as a ramp or elevator for employees who need a wheelchair
  • An accessible reserved parking space
  • Special equipment, computer software, tests, training materials and other tools that might be necessary for job completion
  • A flexible work schedule if the employee requires one

Furthermore, if the employee requires a service animal, their employer typically must allow them to bring that animal to work.

ADA eligibility

Bear in mind, however, that in order to qualify for such reasonable accommodations, employees must have a disability that causes “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (sometimes referred to in the regulations as an ‘actual disability’).” In addition, the employee must be capable of performing the job’s “essential functions” once the employer makes the necessary reasonable accommodations.

Employer exemptions

Even if the employee meets the criteria in the ADA, employers may not be required to make reasonable accommodations. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers only if they employ 15 or more people. Smaller employers are exempt.

In addition, as previously mentioned, if the employer can show that providing reasonable accommodations would induce a hardship on the company, such as extraordinary expenses to install the necessary equipment, ramps, etc., the employer may qualify for an exemption.