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Accommodation of a disability

I want to ask my employer for an accommodation of my disability. What should I do?

Employers are legally required to engage in an “interactive dialogue” with a qualified disabled employee to identify an appropriate, reasonable accommodation that will permit the employee to continue to do his or her job. An employee’s request for reasonable accommodation triggers a corresponding obligation on the part of the employer to engage in a significant amount of direct and meaningful communication with the employee. The refusal of an employer to participate in the interactive process is a violation of disability discrimination laws. An employer’s failure to agree to this dialogue can constitute disability discrimination.

The problem is that a lot of supervisors and even some HR managers don’t understand this process. Companies provide training about sexual harassment which can be obvious. But companies are less likely to train supervisors on how to manage this complicated situation. So, you need to use the right language/buzz words, and get your request to the right people.

First, make sure that your condition is a disability and is not just a temporary condition. Two research tools to help you verify that you have a legally recognized disability are the websites for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Second, think about what kind of accommodation will help you do your job. Remember, it has to be a reasonable accommodation. If you have chronic migraine headaches due to cold winters, asking for a transfer to California is not likely to be considered reasonable. [I actually defended this claim way back when I worked as a civilian lawyer with the US Navy.] I recommend that you look at the website for the Job Accommodation Network: You can type in your disability and find a list of possible accommodations that fit your situation.

Third, notify your manager and Human Resources that you have a disability and want to discuss a reasonable accommodation to allow you to continue to work. Be proactive and have a ready list of options. Don’t sit back and wait for the manager to figure it out. Remember, the law requires the employer to have a dialogue with you about an accommodation. The employer can’t just flat out say no without creating legal exposure.

Depending on your circumstances, you might want to consult an employment lawyer to help you draft the request for an accommodation. It is important to get this right the first time around, not just for the sake of your job, but for the sake of your health.

Pamela A. Smith
Law Office of Pamela A. Smith
233 Needham Street, Suite 540
Newton, MA 02464


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