Having a chronic illness or disability can sometimes make it difficult – or even physically painful – to function in the workplace. But despite struggling daily, many workers are reluctant to speak to their employers about the situation for fear of discrimination. If I tell my boss I am struggling at work, will I be fired? If I request an accommodation, will there be some sort of retaliation? Luckily, there’s a law in place to protect employees with disabilities. If you are struggling in the workplace, it is useful to know your legal rights before speaking to your employer about a potential accommodation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA for short) is a federal law that was originally passed in 1990, and then strengthened by amendments in 2008. The law protects individuals with disabilities against discrimination, including in the workplace. If you have a legal disability and work at a company with 15 or more employees (or you work at a state or local government, regardless of the number of employees) your employer is legally obligated to provide “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA.
“Reasonable accommodations” means providing you with the tools and environment necessary to help you perform your job. There are many types of accommodations that may be considered reasonable, ranging from making existing facilities more accessible, acquiring or modifying existing equipment to better suit your needs, or potentially changing your hours or restructuring your job in some useful way.
If you are thinking about asking your employer for a workplace accommodation, here are some tips for success:
See your doctor. In order to have your rights protected under the ADA, a doctor must diagnose you with a disability. Many of us may not feel completely comfortable with the term “disabled,” but the official use of the term does give you legal rights that can make your life a lot easier. When you request a workplace accommodation, your employer is allowed to request documentation of your disability – so make sure your medical records can prove your diagnosis.
Know your rights. Although you don’t need to refer to the ADA or even use the term “reasonable accommodation” when you make your request, it is still important to know your rights in the workplace. Remember that your employer is legally obligated to provide accommodations if you work in a company with 15 or more employees (or you work for state or local government).
Be prepared. The ADA places the initial burden on the worker to inform his or her employer about the need for an accommodation. This means that you will need to initiate the conversation with your boss and suggest plausible accommodations that will suit your needs. Before talking with your employer, you may want to contact the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which is a free, confidential, and personalized service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. JAN can help you brainstorm about which type of accommodations would be best to request for your situation.
Make your case. Start by putting your request in writing and asking to discuss the issue with your direct supervisor. Your requests will be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they will constitute “undue hardship” to your employer. Undue hardship refers not only to the potential financial burden but also to whether or not the accommodation would be disruptive or fundamentally alter the nature of the business. Luckily, a study conducted by JAN showed that the majority of effective accommodations cost less than $500, and most employers surveyed indicated that their company had benefited overall as a result. So when you make your case, try to focus on the reasonableness of your requests and emphasize how the accommodations will increase your productivity.
Be persistent. If you encounter resistance, you may want to consider speaking with your human resources department. If your employer denies your request and you suspect discrimination, contact JAN or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which can act on your behalf so you don’t have to face a discriminatory employer on your own.