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Disability discrimination and reasonable accommodation

On Behalf of | Dec 5, 2023 | Disability Discrimination

Many disability discrimination claims involve a dispute over what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation.” This can be a complex topic. In this blog post, we’ll briefly look at the term “reasonable accommodation” and its importance in protecting workers with disabilities.

Request for reasonable accommodation

Under California and federal law, workers who have disabilities have certain rights in the workplace. These include the right to a reasonable accommodation for their disabilities. Put simply, this means that when a worker’s disability interferes with their ability to do a job, the worker can request that their employer make certain changes to accommodate their disability, in order to allow them to continue working in their current role or a new one.

Disability protection laws require employers to make such accommodations, but only if they are reasonable under the circumstances. An employer is excused from making an accommodation that would place an undue hardship on the employer. In other words, employers must accommodate a worker’s disability so long as the accommodation is not too expensive or impractical.

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for those who have a mental or physical disability so that those individuals can carry out the essential functions of their employment. The law applies to nearly all businesses with five or more employees, and for both existing employees and new hires.

While it’s usually a disabled person who requests a reasonable accommodation, the California law requires employers to begin communications with a disabled worker about accommodations when they become aware of the possibility that the worker might need an accommodation, even if the disabled person has not yet brought up the subject.

Examples of reasonable accommodations

The difference between a reasonable accommodation and an undue hardship can vary greatly from one case to the next. Some examples of reasonable accommodation include:

  • Modifying work schedules: For example, providing a disabled worker with leave for their medical needs.
  • Modifying job duties: For example, if an employee’s disability means they cannot do all the tasks they once did, the employer can assign those tasks to other employees and give new tasks to the disabled employee.
  • Relocating an employee’s work area: For example, if a worker can perform all their job duties but can’t fit their wheelchair into their workstation, then an employer can move their workstation to a more suitable area.
  • Providing appropriate work equipment or mechanical devices that can help the worker perform their job duties: This might involve wheelchair ramps, mechanical risers or electronic text-to-voice devices.

For some accommodations, employers may have to give the disabled worker — or other employees — special training.

Other accommodations may require making an exception to a policy in the workplace. For example, if a workplace has a no-animals policy, it may make an exception for a worker who has a guide dog.

Undue hardship

What may be a reasonable accommodation in one workplace can constitute an undue hardship in another. For example, it might be no big deal to provide a wheelchair ramp in a suburban office park, but it can be prohibitively expensive and impractical to install one in an workplace that is situated in an historic building.

However, some employers simply refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation for no good reason. This can mean a disabled worker has a valid claim for disability discrimination.