South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department

Helping people with disabilities to become and stay employed.
Helping businesses find and keep talent.

Employing Ability

Reasonable Accommodation

A reasonable accommodation can be as simple as raising a desk, providing a sit/stand stool or changing an employee’s work schedule.

Reasonable accommodations are usually inexpensive, yet providing these accommodations not only allow you to expand your workforce, but potentially benefit all of your employees and customers.

What is Reasonable Accommodation?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities, unless it would cause undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way a job is performed that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. There are three categories of “reasonable accommodations”:

  1. changes to a job application process
  2. changes to the work environment, or to the way a job is usually
  3. changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment (such as access to training).

People with disabilities need the job tools and a work environment that will enable them to do their jobs effectively. While some of these “tools” or the job accommodations they require may be different from those traditionally used to do a job, they accomplish the same end—they help qualified employees to do the best jobs they can.

Accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis. They are made as a cooperative effort among the employee with a disability, the employer, and other individuals when appropriate. The main issues to be considered are the job tasks that must be accomplished, the functional limitations of the person doing the job and whether the proposed accommodation will pose an undue hardship to the employer. Accommodations may include specialized equipment, facility modifications, and adjustments to work schedules or job duties, as well as a whole range of other creative solutions.

Undue Hardship
Limits on Providing Reasonable Accommodation

An employer never has to provide any reasonable accommodation that causes undue hardship, meaning significant difficulty or expense. Undue hardship refers not only to financial difficulty but to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.

Every request for reasonable accommodation should be evaluated separately to determine if it would impose an undue hardship, taking into account:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation
  • the overall financial resources of the business; the number of persons employed by the business; and the effect on expenses and resources of the business
  • the impact of the accommodation on the business.

If cost is an issue, an employer should determine whether funding is available from an outside source, such as the state rehabilitation agency, or whether it is eligible for certain tax credits or deductions to offset the cost of the accommodation. Also, to the extent that a portion of the cost of an accommodation causes undue hardship, the employer should ask the individual with a disability if s/he will pay the difference.

An employer cannot claim undue hardship based on employees’ or customers’ fears or prejudices, or because providing a reasonable accommodation might have a negative impact on employee morale. Employers may claim undue hardship where a reasonable accommodation would be unduly disruptive to other employees’ ability to work.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does an individual request a reasonable accommodation?

The individual must let the employer know that s/he needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. An individual may use “plain English” and need not mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation”. Requests do not need to be in writing, though an employer may choose to write a memorandum or letter confirming the request.

What must an employer do after receiving a request for reasonable accommodation?

When the disability and/or the need for accommodation are not obvious, the employer may ask the individual for reasonable documentation about his/her disability and functional limitations.

The employer and the individual with a disability should engage in an informal process to clarify what the individual needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. The employer may ask what is needed and other questions that will enable it to make an informed decision. There are extensive resources to help with this. Please see the section on Resources.

Must the employer provide the accommodation that the individual wants?

The employer may choose among reasonable accommodations as long as the chosen accommodation is effective (i.e. it removes the workplace barrier at issue). The employer may offer alternative suggestions. If there are two possible reasonable accommodations, and one costs more or is more difficult to provide, the employer may choose the one that is less expensive or easier to provide, as long as it is effective.

How quickly must an employer respond?

An employer should respond promptly to a request for reasonable accommodation. The interactive process between the employer and the individual should proceed as quickly as possible. Similarly, the employer should act promptly to provide the accommodation.

Is restructuring a job a reasonable accommodation?

Yes. This includes shifting responsibility to other employees for minor job tasks that an employee is unable to perform because of a disability and altering when and/or how a job task is performed. An employer can require the employee with a disability to perform a different minor job function in its place.

Is providing leave necessitated by an employee’s disability a form of reasonable accommodation?

Yes, absent undue hardship, providing unpaid leave is a form of accommodation. However, an employer does not have to provide more paid leave than it provides to other employees.

May an employer apply a “no-fault” leave policy, under which employees are automatically terminated after they have been on leave for a certain period of time, to an employee with a disability who needs additional leave?

If an employee with a disability needs additional unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, the employer must provide the employee with the additional leave even if it has a “no-fault” policy. However, the employer does not need to provide leave if it can provide an effective accommodation that allows the person to keep working or it can show that granting additional leave would cause an undue hardship.

When an employee requests leave as a reasonable accommodation, may an employer provide an accommodation that requires him/her to remain on the job instead?

Yes, if the employer’s proposed reasonable accommodation would be effective and eliminate the need for leave. Accordingly, an employer may reallocate minor job tasks or provide a temporary transfer instead of leave, so long as the employee can still address his/her medical needs.

Is a modified or part-time schedule a reasonable accommodation?

Yes, absent undue hardship. A modified schedule may involve adjusting arrival or departure times, providing periodic breaks, altering when certain job tasks are performed, allowing an employee to use accrued paid leave, or providing additional unpaid leave.

Is it a reasonable accommodation to modify a workplace policy because of an employee’s disability?

Yes. For example, granting an employee time off from work or an adjusted work schedule as a reasonable accommodation may involve modifying leave or attendance procedures or policies. However, reasonable accommodation only requires that the employer modify the policy for an employee with a disability. The employer may continue to apply the policy to all other employees.

Does an employer have to reassign to a vacant position an employee who can no longer perform his/her job because of a disability?

Yes, unless the employer can show that it would be an undue hardship. The following criteria apply to reassignment:

An employee must be “qualified” for the new position. This means that s/he satisfies the skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of the position, and can perform the primary job tasks of the new position, with or without reasonable accommodation. The employer does not have to assist the employee to become qualified. An employer does not have to bump other employees or create a position. Nor does an employer have to promote the employee. Reassignment should be to a position that is equal in pay and status to the position that the employee held, or to one that is as close as possible in terms of pay and status if an equivalent position is not vacant.

Does a reasonable accommodation include changing a person’s supervisor?

No. The ADA may, however, require that supervisory methods, such as the method of communicating assignments, be altered as a form of reasonable accommodation.

Are there certain things that are not considered reasonable accommodations and are therefore not required?

An employer does not have to eliminate a primary job responsibility.

An employer is not required to lower production standards but may have to provide reasonable accommodation to enable an employee with a disability to meet them.

An employer does not have to provide personal use items such as a wheelchair or hearing aids or similar devices.

An employer never has to excuse a violation of a uniformly applied conduct rule that is job-related and consistent with business necessity. An employer never has to tolerate or excuse violence, threats of violence, stealing, or destruction of property. An employer may discipline an employee with a disability for engaging in such misconduct if it would impose the same discipline in an employee without a disability.

May an employer tell other employees that someone is receiving a reasonable accommodation?

No, 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.

An employer may certainly respond to a question from an employee about why a coworker is receiving what is perceived as “different” or “special” treatment by emphasizing its policy of assisting any employee who encounters difficulties in the workplace.

The employer may find it helpful to point out that many of the workplace issues are personal and that it is the employer’s policy to respect employee privacy. This may involve making the point by reassuring the employee asking the question that his/her privacy would similarly be respected if s/he found it necessary to ask the employer for some kind of workplace change for personal reasons.

Employers might also find it helpful to provide all employees with information about various laws that require employers to meet certain employee needs and protect their privacy; e.g. the ADA and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

May an employer ask whether a reasonable accommodation is needed when an employee with disability has not asked for one?

If an employer knows that an employee has a disability, it may ask whether s/he needs a reasonable accommodation when it reasonably believes that the employee may need an accommodation.

An employer also may ask an employee with a disability who is having performance or conduct problems if s/he needs reasonable accommodation.

Must an employer modify the work hours of an employee with a disability if doing so would prevent other employees from performing their jobs?

No. If modifying one employee’s work hours or granting leave would prevent other employees from doing their jobs, then the significant disruption to the operations of the employer constitutes an undue hardship.

Can an employer deny a request for leave when an employee cannot provide a fixed date of return?

In some situations, an employee may be able to provide only an approximate date of return because treatment and recuperation do not always permit exact timetables. If an employer is able to show that the lack of a fixed return date imposes an undue hardship, then it can deny the leave. Undue hardship could result if the employer can neither plan for the employee’s return nor permanently fill the position.

In other situations, an employer may be able to be flexible.

Note that employers who are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may have obligations under that law as well as the ADA.

Information from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).