young man in wheelchair working in open office settingAs a person with a disability, you contribute at least as much at work as your colleagues, but you require accommodations to allow you to be able to perform at your best. Your right to reasonable accommodations is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. If your employer fails to provide accommodations—or claims that the modifications you require are unreasonable—you might have grounds for a discrimination lawsuit. We explain how the ADA protects your rights and what the law means by "reasonable accommodations."

What Does the Americans With Disabilities Act Do to Protect Disabled Workers?

The ADA aims to create a more inclusive and accessible workplace for individuals with disabilities, ensuring that they have equal opportunities for employment and advancement. It promotes the principle of equal treatment and helps to eliminate barriers that might otherwise prevent disabled workers from fully participating in the workforce. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including tasks such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, and performing manual tasks.

The law prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, compensation, and other terms and conditions of employment. In addition, employers must ensure that their workplaces are accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes providing accessible entrances, restrooms, and other facilities.

Generally, employers are prohibited from conducting medical examinations or asking disability-related questions before making a job offer. However, after a job offer is extended, employers can conduct medical exams or ask questions, as long as they do so for all entering employees in the same job category. To be protected under the ADA, an individual must be qualified for the job. This means they meet the job's requirements and can perform its essential functions with or without reasonable accommodations.

What Does the ADA Mean by Reasonable Accommodations?

One of the key provisions of the ADA is the requirement for employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment or modification to a job or work environment that allows an employee with a disability to perform essential job functions. This could include modifications to work schedules, providing assistive technology, making physical modifications to the workplace, or reassigning certain tasks. Examples of reasonable accommodations in various workplaces include the following.

In an office setting, employers could assist a disabled worker with:

  • Flexible work schedules. Allowing an employee with a disability to have flexible start and end times or work from home on certain days could accommodate medical appointments or treatments.
  • Assistive technology. Providing screen readers, speech recognition software, or other assistive technology assists employees with visual or cognitive impairments.
  • Accessible workstations. Adjusting the height of desks, providing ergonomic chairs, and ensuring that workspaces are accessible could accommodate employees with mobility impairments.
  • Quiet workspace. Quieter workspaces or noise-canceling headphones could be essential for employees who have sensory sensitivities.
  • Accessible documents. Ensuring that documents are provided in accessible formats, such as large print, Braille, or electronic versions compatible with screen readers, would help workers who are visually impaired.

In the retail or service industry, workplaces could offer:

  • Modified duties. Modifying job tasks for an employee who may have physical limitations, such as assigning them to the cash register instead of requiring heavy lifting, would be a reasonable accommodation.
  • Accessible restrooms. Ensuring that restroom facilities are accessible for employees with mobility impairments is an essential accommodation in a workplace.
  • Allowing assistance animals. Permitting employees with disabilities to have service animals in the workplace, even if the company has a "no pets" policy, is a reasonable accommodation in many job settings.
  • Job coaches. Providing a job coach could assist employees with intellectual disabilities in learning and performing their job tasks effectively.
  • Extended breaks. Allowing additional breaks or longer break times to accommodate medical needs is an easy way to accommodate workers with chronic illnesses.

Disabled workers can contribute in a manufacturing or industrial setting with accommodations such as the following:

  • Modified equipment. Providing specialized tools, machinery, or equipment that are adapted for employees with physical disabilities might be considered reasonable for larger manufacturing companies.
  • Job restructuring. Adjusting job tasks or responsibilities to better match an employee's capabilities and limitations can be accomplished with employee input and consultations with experts.
  • Accessible pathways. Employers can ensure that pathways and routes within the workplace are accessible for employees with mobility aids.
  • Visual alarms. Installing visual alarms for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing to alert them to emergency situations is vital for worker safety.
  • Training materials. Providing training materials in accessible formats for employees with visual impairments or learning disabilities would be considered a reasonable accommodation.

In a health care setting, workers needing help could benefit from:

  • Scheduling accommodations. Adjusting work schedules or shifts for employees undergoing medical treatments or therapy is a fairly simple and sensible modification.
  • Accessible medical equipment. Health care employers can ensure that medical equipment is accessible and usable by employees with mobility impairments.
  • Seating accommodations. Providing ergonomic seating or alternate seating options for employees who may need to sit during their shifts would be considered a reasonable accommodation.
  • Sign language interpreters. Providing sign language interpreters is an essential accommodation for deaf or hard-of-hearing employees during meetings or interactions with patients.
  • Modified uniforms. Allowing modifications to uniforms or dress codes to accommodate specific medical needs or disabilities is also an inexpensive, reasonable change.

These are just a sample of the kinds of modifications that can be made to accommodate people with a variety of limitations or disabilities. Accommodations should be tailored to the individual's specific needs and job requirements. Employers should engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine the most effective and appropriate accommodations for their situation. While some changes might be reasonable for certain employers—say, larger companies—they might place an undue burden on a smaller employer. An anti-discrimination lawyer can help you determine when your rights have been violated.