What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” to qualified employees or job applicants that would allow them to perform a specific job or position. However, the employee or job applicant must already be qualified to perform the “essential functions” of the job, and employers are not required to take on “undue hardship” to provide an accommodation. But what does this actually mean?

The specifics of the “reasonable accommodation” provision vary according to the nature of the industry as well as to specific positions. In particular, “reasonable accommodation” for an HVAC technician position naturally differs from “reasonable accommodation” for positions that demand much less physical labor. Nonetheless, there are aspects of the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the ADA that are relevant to the HVAC industry, while other aspects are applicable to all industries.

“Reasonable Accommodation” Defined

There are four fundamental elements to the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the ADA: accommodation, qualified applicant or employee, essential function and undue hardship

  • Accommodation: a change or modification to a workplace or position that allows a disabled person who is otherwise qualified to perform the duties of a position
  • Qualified employee (or job applicant): individual who possesses the relevant, required education, experience and training to perform the essential functions of a position even without an accommodation
  • Essential function: duties and functions that are essential to the actual position, versus other functions performed as a part of the job that may require an accommodation
  • Undue hardship: an accommodation that is too expensive or disruptive for an employer to be reasonably expected to provide to a disabled job applicant or employee

“Reasonable Accommodation” in Testing and Evaluation

The “reasonable accommodation” provision of the ADA also extends to testing or evaluation for a particular position. What this means is that an otherwise qualified employee or job applicant must be provided with a reasonable accommodation in the way a test is administered. For instance, a job applicant (or an employee applying for an internal position opening) who is deaf must be provided with a sign language interpreter during the testing process for that position, so long as normal hearing is not an essential function of the job.

Undue Hardship Exemptions

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is tasked with enforcing the ADA and its “reasonable accommodation” provision. The EEOC has established four elements, listed below, for determining whether an accommodation for a qualified employee or job applicant presents an undue hardship on an employer.

  • Cost and nature of the accommodation
  • An employer’s financial resources
  • Size, composition and structure of the business
  • Existing accommodation costs within a particular workplace

One important consideration is that a “reasonable accommodation” is only required to allow an employee to perform the functions of a job. This may or may not correspond with the accommodation requested by an employee. For instance, an employee may request an expensive computer monitor because glare from conventional computer screens aggravates an eye disorder. However, an employer may provide a “reasonable accommodation” for the employee by installing an anti-glare screen on the employee’s computer for less than $50.

On the other hand, even expensive accommodations may be determined to be reasonable, depending on circumstances. Larger employers are more likely to be expected to provide costly accommodations than small business owners are. Available tax credits and deductions, along with willingness by disabled employees (or job applicants) to pay for all or some of the costs associated with an accommodation are also considered in a determination of whether an accommodation is reasonable or presents an undue hardship to an employer.

HVAC-Related “Essential Functions” and “Reasonable Accommodations”

HVAC technician positions are physically demanding. Standing, navigating small spaces, moderately heavy lifting and manual dexterity are all legitimately included as essential functions and as job requirements. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a person with a physical disability that requires the full-time use of a wheelchair would be qualified to perform the essential functions of an HVAC technician. However, it is conceivable that someone with a disorder such as well controlled epilepsy or a hearing impediment (versus profound deafness) could perform the essential functions of the position, thereby being qualified to be a technician.

Refusing to hire otherwise disabled individuals as technicians because of a disability or because of unwillingness to provide “reasonable accommodation” could land employers in legal hot water. Likewise, prohibiting disabled employees from driving or operating particular pieces of equipment could be potentially problematic, especially if the employees in question had demonstrated competence in handling such tasks in the past, with or without accommodation.

Disclaimer: This article represents a general discussion of “reasonable accommodation” as related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is not intended to provide legal advice. Please consult with an attorney specializing in employment-related law in your jurisdiction with specific questions about “reasonable accommodation” or your company’s circumstances.

Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is a Chicago-based independent writing and research consultant specializing in sustainability, affordable housing, popular culture and the arts, travel, mental health issues, interpersonal relationships and business. Her written work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, Sustainable Cities Collective, Scripps Natoinal Digital, JustMeans and tcrBLOG, the online outlet for The Chicago Reporter.
Audrey Henderson

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