The ADA: Read Between the Lines

You Asked.BlogAn employee recently complained to HR that I didn’t provide him a reasonable accommodation for his chronic back condition. Other than complaining that he “wished he could sit down” while he worked because of back pain, this is the first I’ve heard of it. His job involves wiring electronics, and we could certainly arrange to have him do his job sitting, if he only cared enough to come see me about it. What do I do now?

Since you’ve already indicated that providing the chair would not pose an undue hardship for you, I would waste no time in doing so. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance, an employee requesting a reasonable accommodation can use plain English and need not mention the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.”

The guidance offers several examples:

Example A: An employee tells her supervisor, “I’m having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments I’m undergoing.” This is a request for a reasonable accommodation.

Example B: An employee tells his supervisor, “I need six weeks off to get treatment for a back problem.” This is a request for a reasonable accommodation.

Example C: A new employee, who uses a wheelchair, informs the employer that her wheelchair cannot fit under the desk in her office. This is a request for reasonable accommodation.

Example D: An employee tells his supervisor that he would like a new chair because his present one is uncomfortable. Although this is a request for a change at work, his statement is insufficient to put the employer on notice that he is requesting reasonable accommodation. He does not link his need for the new chair with a medical condition.

Look closely at Example D. While the employee in this instance failed to relate his discomfort with a chair to a medical condition, your employee has.

Your employee’s statement should put you on notice to engage in the interactive process to determine possible reasonable accommodations from which you, as the employer, may choose. But remember, no reasonable accommodation is due an employee who doesn’t meet the ADA definition of “disabled.”

In your case, if a chair is what he wants and providing it poses no problems for you, I would document the discussion, provide the chair, and move on. 

A philosopher once described chess as “a lake in which a gnat may bathe and an elephant may drown.” I believe this was simply a mystical way of saying that it can be very simple or hopelessly complex, depending on the circumstances. The ADA is no different, and we urge members to call us for assistance whenever ADA issues arise.