Disability & Reasonable Accommodation

Physical and mental disabilities do not diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society, including employment; yet, many people with physical or mental disabilities have been pushed out of the workplace because of their disabilities. Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate persons with disabilities, and such forms of discrimination are still a serious social problem.

To ensure that workers with disabilities get a fair shot in the workplace, federal and state law requires certain employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to workers with a disability. To be eligible for a reasonable accommodation, four puzzle pieces must be put together.

The first piece of the puzzle is that the worker has an impairment that is medically recognizable, diagnosable or exists as a record or history. I call this piece of the puzzle the "disability" piece. This can range from an injury such as a broken bone to blindness to cancer. It can also include mental illness. The definition of disability in Washington is very broad.

The second piece of the puzzle is that the employer must know about the worker's disability. I call this piece the "employer knowledge" piece. Either the worker can tell the employer about his or her disability or the employer must already be aware of the disability through another source. For example, a physician treating a worker for an injury sustained on the job might send medical reports to the employer. Once the employer is aware of the disability, the employer must engage in good faith in an interactive process with the worker to find reasonable accommodations, if any.

The third piece of the puzzle is what I call the "necessity" piece. Basically, the disability must substantially limit the worker's ability to perform the job or the worker's ability to access equal benefits, privileges or conditions of employment as non-disabled workers. In the alternative, the worker can provide the employer with the medical documentation that shows it is reasonably likely that working without an accommodation would make the disability worse to the point it substantially limits the worker's ability to perform the job or access equal benefits.

The last piece of the puzzle is that the worker must be able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without an accommodation. I call this the "essential functions" piece. An essential function of a job is fundamental, basic, necessary and indispensable to the job. This is determined on a case-by-case basis. Some of the things judges, juries and lawyers consider are whether the existence of the position is justified by performing the function in question, the employer's opinion on which functions are essential, the opinions of others who work in and around the worker, written job descriptions and the amount of time spent performing that function.

When these four puzzle pieces are put together, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to the worker. But what is reasonable? This, again, is determined on a case-by-case basis. A reasonable accommodation can include adjusting how essential functions (see the fourth piece above) are carried out, adjusting work schedules or scope of work, and making changes in the job setting or to conditions of employment. It can also include the purchase and use of adaptive technology. If the worker cannot perform the essential functions of her job, even with an accommodation, the employer must help the worker identify and apply for any vacant positions for which the worker is qualified. For it to be reasonable, an accommodation cannot place an undue hardship on the employer. This, again, is determined on a case-by-case basis. Some things judges, juries and lawyers consider include the size of and the resources available to the employer, whether the cost of adapting the workplace can be included in planned remodeling or maintenance and the requirements of any contracts.

Only employers of certain sizes are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations. This area of law has many nuances. Obtaining the advice of a qualified attorney on how to proceed is well worth it. Call Kennewick, WA's Adam R. Pechtel for assistance with your situation: (509) 586-3091.