Applying for a job is already stressful enough, without having to worry about disability discrimination. This form of discrimination can occur during the hiring process or after the you’ve accepted a new job. Fortunately, there are a few federal laws meant to protect disabled folks from undue hardship.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both contain provisions specifically designed to prevent employers – specifically federal agencies and government contractors – from putting up unreasonable obstacles as one attempts to land a new job or continues to work an old one. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, charged with enforcing these provisions, requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations,” which the agency defines as “any change in the workplace or the way things are customarily done that provides an equal employment opportunity to an individual with a disability.”
Of course, there can be confusion around this term, which is why the EEOC provides a number of examples and a few guiding principles to help avoid any unintentional violations. Some examples include:
- Giving breaks when needed
- Transplanting to a new office
- Offering accessible parking
- Altering workplace policies
- Hiring special reader if other employees cannot fulfill this need
- Changing procedures for completing certain tasks
- Modifying schedules and itineraries
- Reassigning an employee to a new job
- Offering assistive technology
It’s important to remember that the accommodation must allow the disabled person to perform the necessary functions, finish a job, enter the workplace and enjoy any associated privileges.
If you’re a prospective employee, it’s understandable that you’d be a little worried about asking for such accommodations. To that end, it’s important to note that you can submit an accommodation request at any point. Once you’ve decided to submit such a request, you must seek out the Disability Program Manager – there’s one in every agency. This person will forward your request through the appropriate channels and get back to you within 10 days, as required by law. Their response should begin the process of finding reasonable solutions.
Management must work with you. If you’re a federal employee, your request must go through the EEOC. If they ignore or deny your request without going through the EEOC, this could be considered discrimination under the aforementioned statutes. The EEOC expects employers to engage in an interactive process that involves all affected parties.
You will need to discuss the precise nature of your request, the disability that has given rise to the issue and the proposed measures meant to remediate the problem-at-hand. The DPM will likely collect information in order to decide whether the disability is truly a disability as defined by the Rehabilitation Act. If you’ve already reported your disability to the EEOC or if your disability is obvious, then this shouldn’t be a problem. Ultimately, if the employer refuses to engage in this interactive process, they may be charged with a failure to accommodate.
If you request an accommodation that is different than management’s suggestion, the process could require a lot of back-and-forth; and if no viable solution is found, the EEOC might consider reassigning you to a new post. This can only occur if there is no accommodation that would allow you to complete your job, or if the accommodation would ultimately do more harm than good. The EEOC might also choose an accommodation that differs from your initial suggestion.
So what happens if you disagree with the outcome? You can commence an informal appeals process, and if this is ineffectual, you can seek more formal channels within the EEOC. If you work for a private employer, you may be forced to sue for reasonable accommodation; or if you’re fired, you can sue for wrongful termination.