What is a "reasonable accommodation" in the ADA?

The ADA provides that a reasonable accommodation may include:

(A) making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and

(B) job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

For example, the EEOC provides an example of a cashier in a store who has the disease lupus, which makes her more prone to fatigue. The employer could provide a reasonable accommodation to this employee by giving her a stool to allow her to sit, instead of stand, while performing her cashier duties. Another example of a reasonable accommodation would be an employee who has a physical disability may request a parking permit to be able to park closer to work that some of her colleagues. This would be considered a reasonable accommodation.

Are there limitations as to what are reasonable accommodations?

Yes, an employee request is not considered a reasonable accommodation if it results in an "undue hardship" on the employer. An undue hardship could be a request that is financially prohibitive or an accommodation that would be too extensive or disruptive of existing work conditions.

How does a court handle the issue of reasonable accommodations and undue hardships?

A court requires that an employee bear the burden of showing that he or she requested a reasonable accommodation

The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with physical disabilities (iStock).

The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with physical disabilities (iStock).

from the employer and that the request was objectively reasonable. This is not an onerous burden, as the employee must show only that the costs of the accommodation do not clearly outweigh the benefits. This qualifies to establish that the request is, at least at first glance, reasonable.

If the employee meets this initial burden, then the courts require the employer to show that the request is unreasonable and imposes an undue hardship on the employer.

What does the court do if a reasonable accommodation conflicts with a seniority system?

In U.S. Airways v. Barnett (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that normally a seniority system would trump most requests for reasonable accommodations, because

LegalSpeak: U.S. Airways v. Barnett (2002)

Justice Steven Breyer (majority): "In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases. As we interpret the statute, to show that a requested accommodation conflicts with the rules of a seniority system is ordinarily to show that the accommodation is not 'reasonable.' Hence such a showing will entitle an employer/defendant to summary judgment on the question—unless there is more. The plaintiff remains free to present evidence of special circumstances that make "reasonable" a seniority rule exception in the particular case."

Justice Antonin Scalia (dissenting): "The principal defect of today's opinion, however, goes well beyond the uncertainty it produces regarding the relationship between the ADA and the infinite variety of seniority systems. The conclusion that any seniority system can ever be overridden is merely one consequence of a mistaken interpretation of the ADA that makes all employment rules and practices—even those which (like a seniority system) pose no distinctive obstacle to the disabled—subject to suspension when that is (in a court's view) a 'reasonable' means of enabling a disabled employee to keep his job. That is a far cry from what I believe the accommodation provision of the ADA requires: the suspension (within reason) of those employment rules and practices that the employee's disability prevents him from observing."

Justice David Souter (dissenting): "Because a unilaterally-imposed seniority system enjoys no special protection under the ADA, a consideration of facts peculiar to this very case is needed to gauge whether Barnett has carried the burden of showing his proposed accommodation to be a 'reasonable' one despite the policy in force at US Airways. The majority describes this as a burden to show the accommodation is 'plausible' or 'feasible,' ante, at 10, and I believe Barnett has met it."

such accommodations would be unreasonable when forcing a worker with seniority to give up his job to accommodate someone with less seniority.

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