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Small Business Owners: Reasonable Accommodations You Must Make For Disabled Workers

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Disabled people often find it difficult to carry out their duties on a regular basis in the workplace. To help counter this problem, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must now make 'reasonable accommodation' for workers with disabilities. If you are a small business owner, the ADA obligations around reasonable accommodation may apply to you, and, if you want to avoid a lawsuit, it's important you understand your responsibilities. Learn more about the steps you must take if a disabled worker asks you to make a reasonable accommodation.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

The ADA expects employers to make adjustments to suit disabled workers, but the law recognizes that businesses must also continue to work profitably and safely. As such, a 'reasonable adjustment' is any change to working conditions you can make without causing undue hardship to your business or your other employees.

The ADA outlines three types of reasonable accommodation, which include:

  • Changes to the way you hire people
  • Changes to the work environment
  • Changes that allow disabled workers to have equal benefits to other employees

It's difficult to fully define the scope of these categories because the definition may vary according to your business and the person requesting the change. Nonetheless, if you don't make a change that a worker requests, it may fall to the courts to decide if the revision is reasonable or not.

What process should you and your workers follow?

You must deal with each request consistently, fairly and transparently. If an employee disputes your decision at a later stage, a court will not look favourably upon a business without a consistent process for these requests. The law doesn't outline how employees should ask for the change, so it's a good idea to put a policy in place that describes what you want your workers to do. As a rule, you should make the process as simple as possible.

In some case, the change is obvious. For example, a worker in a wheelchair needs access to all parts of the office. In other cases, you may not fully understand the impact of your employee's condition. As such, you should ask for more information about the disability, to clarify what you can do. You can also ask for evidence or documentation to support the request. For example, the law allows you to ask for a medical report, if you want to understand more about your employee's functional limitations.

The law expects businesses to respond to and manage these requests promptly. The time it takes to comply with a request will vary according to the scale and complexity of the change needed.

Do you have to do what the employee asks?

The ADA aims to protect the rights of disabled workers, but the legislation accepts the limitations that may sometimes exist. The legislation applies only to companies with 15 or more employees. For smaller businesses, it's often not financially viable or practical to implement reasonable adjustments.

As an employer, you must make a reasonable accommodation that removes the stated workplace barrier, but you don't have to do exactly what the worker requests. For example, a worker with a physical disability may need access to part of the building. He or she may suggest that you must install a lift to enable free access. You may decide that a ramp or adjusted floor still accommodates the request. According to the ADA, you are free to choose the second, less expensive option.

When would you decline a request?

You can decline a request to change if you believe the revision would cause undue hardship. This definition is not always financial. For example, if the change fundamentally altered the way you run your business, you could argue that the request is not reasonable. Nonetheless, you must explore every possibility to accommodate the request. For example, small businesses can sometimes claim a tax credit of up to 50 per cent of the cost of adjustments made to accommodate access requests for wheelchair users.

Some changes are never necessary. You don't have to take away a job holder's responsibilities, nor do you have to lower quality standards for a disabled employee. The law does not expect you to pay for personal items like prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs, and you must never implement a change that contradicts basic business conduct rules. For example, an employee with a mental health disability can still not abuse other workers (verbally or otherwise) as a result of his or her condition.

The Americans with Disabilities Act gives disabled workers extensive protection against discrimination at work. As a small business owner, it's vital that you understand your responsibilities under this law, or you could face stiff financial penalties. If in doubt, consult a business law attorney for more advice.