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The Interactive Process
An Employer’s Guide for Navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Interactive Process
By: Debra Fowler, SHRM-CP
Training & Compliance Manager
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered employers (those with 15 or more employees and state or local governments) to provide qualified applicants and employees who have a covered disability with the same employment opportunities as all other employees. In other words, it prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees for having a disability.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is one of the agencies responsible for enforcing ADA compliance in the workplace.
Who is Protected?
The ADA defines an "individual with a disability" as someone who has:
“a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment."
The ADA goes on to define "physical or mental impairment" as:
“any psychological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine”, as well as “intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.”
Employers are not required to identify an individual’s disability as covered or not and should not spend time researching or questioning an individual’s eligibility to have a disability classified as such. Instead, the employer’s responsibility lies in determining if the individual’s accommodation request is reasonable, if other accommodations should be considered, and whether an accommodation would cause undue hardship for the employer. This is called the Interactive Process, but before starting this process, employers first have to recognize an accommodation request.
How to Identify a Reasonable Accommodation Request
Not all job accommodation requests are going to look the same and not all requests are going to come to the employer in the form of a written request. The ADA requires that individuals (or their representative(s)) let the employer know that a change or adjustment is needed to their job for a medical reason. That’s it – no requirement for the individual to write a letter to the employer stating they need a job accommodation due to their XYZ disability. An example of an accommodation request could be an employee telling their supervisor they have medical appointments over the next few months and will need to start work later or a comment that their wheelchair doesn’t fit under their desk. An employer is responsible for recognizing an individual’s request for accommodation, even if it doesn’t come to them in written form.
Best practice is to provide training to Managers, on an annual basis, if possible, to empower them to identify an ADA accommodation request and how to handle it when it is received.
If an employer is unsure if an individual is requesting an accommodation or not, they can ask for clarification from the individual on what they are asking and why, but they cannot ask the individual if they have a disability. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) recommends an alternative of asking the individual, “How can I help?” which creates a “safe space” for an individual to discuss their disability and does not put the employer in a position of liability for making assumptions about an individual's disability.
What are 'Essential Functions'?
The basic job tasks an individual must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation, are called Essential Functions.
The EEOC offers guidance on how to determine if a job task is essential:
Is the job task the reason the position exists?
How many employees are available to perform the same job task?
How much skill or expertise is required to complete the job task?
If the job task were not completed, what would the impact be on the employer?
How much time is spent on the task?
The best practice is to have an up-to-date job description in writing for all of your positions including the essential functions of each job before hiring for that position and to regularly review and update job descriptions as needed.
The Interactive Process Steps
Once an employer becomes aware of an individual's need for accommodation, they should take action to address the request as soon as possible. The employer can request the individual fill out paperwork, such as an accommodation request form, to formally document the request.
Employers may ask for documentation to support the individual’s need for accommodation when the disability or the need for accommodation is not known or obvious. Keep in mind that employers can only ask for medical documentation that relates to the individual’s disability and their ability to perform the job, consistent with business necessity.
This can help employers understand how an individual’s disability or limitation interferes with their ability to perform the job. If an individual’s disability has been previously documented or is obvious, an employer is not allowed to request medical documentation.
If an employee fails to provide or is unwilling to provide sufficient medical documentation to verify an impairment exists that substantially limits one or more major life activities to support their accommodation request, the employer is not required to continue with the accommodation process.
Before discontinuing the accommodation process, the employer should notify the individual the documentation is insufficient and provide an opportunity for the individual to submit the missing information promptly. With the individual’s written authorization, the employer can also contact the individual’s health care provider to gather information needed to substantiate the request.
The EEOC and the ADA consider documentation to be sufficient if it includes:
The nature, severity, and duration of the individual’s impairment;
The activity or activities the impairment limits;
The extent the impairment limits the individual’s ability to perform the activity or activities; and
Verifies why the requested accommodation is needed.
Remember to use available resources – the individual requesting the accommodation is the best source of information about their disability and what accommodation(s) can enable them to perform the job.
One of the most important, but often overlooked, aspects of workplace accommodation is documentation. Gathering the documentation from the start of the process will make this process much easier than trying to collect everything at the end. Documentation can include the individual’s initial accommodation request (if in writing), a written request form, medical certification, essential function review process, correspondence between the individual, employer, and health care provider, written approval of the accommodation request, follow-up meeting notes to review the effectiveness of the accommodation, and any other documentation related to the accommodation. This documentation is required to be stored in a confidential medical file, away from any personnel file documentation. Only certain personnel should have access to this information, which may include the individual and Human Resources.
Employers with 15 or more employees are required to comply with the ADA.
The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified applicants or employees because of their disability.
Employers are not required to provide accommodation to individuals who do not meet the minimum requirements of the position, or to those who cannot perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation.
Accommodation requests come in many forms: verbal, written, observed, etc.
There is no one size fits all accommodation. Each request, even if from the same individual, should be considered independently and on a case-by-case basis.
Employers should document the process from start to finish. This shows the accommodation request was acted upon and what action was taken.
Creativity is required when identifying accommodation options.
Not all accommodation requests are reasonable.
Minimum Wage Update
2022 Minimum Wage
Effective: January 1, 2023
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