If your business has 15 or more employees, it’s required to provide reasonable accommodations per the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have fewer employees, accommodations might still be mandated, depending on state or local laws.
Regardless of the legalities, it’s smart for any business to offer accommodations that don’t impose an undue hardship. The changes usually are simple and free. At the same time, they widen applicant pools, enhance morale, and foster an atmosphere of inclusion.
Examples of Common Accommodations
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers the A to Z of accommodations for virtually any condition or disability. Head over there for ideas if you feel confused or stuck. JAN includes disabilities such as arthritis, blindness, color vision deficiency, deafness, low vision, multiple sclerosis, obesity, stuttering, and vertigo (OK, there’s technically no Z). Anyway, let’s start with a look at hearing-related accommodations.1,2
Hearing: Deaf or Hard of Hearing
- Service animal: If the business normally has a “no animals allowed” policy
- Disability awareness or etiquette training: For other employees to improve their communication, tolerance, and confidence
- Job restructuring: To reallocate small aspects of the job and/or change timing and method of essential job functions
- Modified training material or extra time during training: To make training more accessible, for instance, adding captions or subtitles to a training video
- Notetaker: To take notes during lectures, workshops, meetings, etc.
- Interpreter: To facilitate communication through sign language, voicing, cued speech, tactile, or something else
- CART services (including remote): To provide real-time text of a lecture, workshop, meeting, etc.
- Live AI captioning or live transcription on smartphones, tablets, and computers: Can be done through programs such as Ava or smartphone dictation/voice recognition programs (it’s also possible to pair apps or utilities with wireless microphone transmitters such as the Roger pen for cochlear implants)
- Video relay services: To help employees who use ASL make and receive necessary business calls
- Notepad or whiteboard: To serve various communications purposes
- Clear masks: To help with lipreading and comprehension, often a COVID-19 accommodation but has use in other instances
- Portable text communication device: To facilitate one-on-one communication through assistive technology
- Telephone amplification, telephones with captioning, hearing aid compatible headsets: To help employees make and receive necessary business calls
- Assistive listening devices: For sound clarity, amplification, and reduction of background noise
- Two-way radio with texting: To enable communication in the field
- Voicemail transcription, voice to text
- Relay Conference Captioning (RCC): For federal employees only, free captioning for conference or multiparty calls
For environmental awareness or tracking awareness
- Alerting devices: To alert employees to environmental sounds such as a ringing doorbell or fire alarm
- Strobe lights: To let employees know about vehicles approaching or backing up, particularly in factory or industrial workplaces
- Fixed travel routes for vehicles and heavy equipment: Especially useful in factory or industrial workplaces
- Vehicle rear vision: To help workers operating forklifts and other equipment see behind them
- Vibrating watches or alarms: To keep employees on top of appointments and other schedule/time-related issues
- Amplified stethoscopes
Since some people who are deaf or hard of hearing prefer not to speak (or don’t produce intelligible speech), they may ask for speech-language accommodations such as augmentative or alternative communication devices. Some accommodations mentioned above such as interpreters, notepads, video relay services, whiteboards, and portable communication devices also help in this respect.3
What about conditions such as noise sensitivity or ringing in the ears? JAN has these (and more!) covered. Possible accommodations for noise sensitivity include:2
- Soundproof panels
- Noise-cancelling earbuds
- Modified workspace that reduces or eliminates auditory clutter
- Alerting devices
Many of the suggestions are the same for ringing in the ears. You could also see if tinnitus maskers and cubicle shields might be effective.
General accommodations 4
- Braille labelers
- Tactile dots or markers
- Talking equipment: Barcode scanners and readers, cash register, color detector, credit card terminal, money identifier
- Attendant or aide: To help with navigation, for instance, when traveling during work conferences
- Qualified readers: To read material out loud
- Service animal
- Flexible schedule, job restructuring, telework, working remotely, modified workspace, or workspace redesign
- Detectable warning surfaces (small, raised circles on pedestrian ramps and other surfaces): To let employees know about something coming up, for instance, the top of a staircase, an elevator, or a doorway
- Paint or high-visibility floor tape
- Stair tread or texture tape (nonslip surfaces): So employees stay balanced when walking on stairs or surfaces
- Optical character recognition scan systems: To convert text and receive speech output or save to a computer
- Telephone light sensor: To tell if a telephone light is blinking or steadily on
- Screen-reading software: To read aloud text appearing on a computer screen
- Computer Braille display: To make content on computer screens readable in Braille
- Computer phone software: To enable calls using computer hardware
- Computer headsets
- Keyboard tops and labels: To put tactile Braille markers over the keys
- Accessible typing program
Other vision disabilities include color blindness and low vision. The ideas listed above and below can also help with conditions such as myopia, astigmatism, glaucoma, cataracts, and a lack of depth perception.
Colorblind/color vision issues 5
- Job restructuring or policy modification
- High visibility floor tape or paint
- Color identification smartphone apps and devices
- Color filters, special lenses, or talking color detectors
- Color contrast overlays
Low vision 6
- Accessible smartphones: To add or use apps for screen reading, message reading, voice output, and others
- Large-button telephones, large visual displays
- Computer screen magnification, whether external, portable, head-mounted, or software
- High-visibility floor tape or paint
- Lighted reading glasses: To magnify or illuminate
- Talking equipment such as blood pressure monitors, blood glucose monitors, tape measures, copiers, coin sorters, calculators, and scales
JAN offers possible accommodations for many disabilities or conditions. This guide does not cover them all, but let’s touch on a few extremely common ones such as cancer.7
- Flexible schedule, job restructuring, telework, periodic rest breaks, extra time
- Anti-fatigue matting
- Stand-lean stools
- Walkers and wheelchairs
- Written instructions, memory software, checklists, noise-canceling headsets, and other devices to assist executive functioning
- Odor control products to help with nausea triggers
- Carpet alternatives and alternative cleaning supplies
- Service animal or support person
- Hand protection gloves, cold resistant or heated gloves
- Workstation space heaters
- Heated clothes
- Counseling or therapy
Back Impairment 8
- Telework, working remotely, job restructuring
- Modified break schedule, periodic rest breaks
- Carts, lightweight ladders, scooter or wheelchair accessories, lifting aids
- Transfer sheets, patient lifts, adjustable exam tables
- Rescue chair, bariatric evacuation sled, and other evacuation devices
- Rolling safety ladders, coach steps, stair assists
- Elevated wheelchairs, anti-fatigue matting, stools for cutting hair
- Adjustable workstations, pedal workstations, alternative mice
- Vacuum pickup tools, carts
- Ergonomic chairs and equipment
- Van conversions
- Schedule flexibility, modified schedules
- Ergonomic or adjustable equipment such as adjustable massage tables
- Long-handled or convex mirrors
- Patient lifts
- All-terrain scooters, wheelchairs, accessories
- Carts, vacuum lifts, aerial lifts, other types of lifts
- Odor control products and devices
- Grab bars near toilets
The 6 Steps of the Accommodations Process
Employers must consider accommodations on a case-by-case basis. It’s important to avoid a “one size fits all” mindset, especially since each person is unique. It makes sense for three employees with the same disability to request three different accommodations and for all requests to be reasonable.
Of course, a business can make accommodations only if it is aware of a disability. It’s up to applicants and employees to disclose to managers, human resources personnel, or other designated people. Here’s an overview of the steps involved in the accommodations process.10
- Applicant or employee discloses disability and explains how it affects their ability to perform an application or job function.
- An interactive dialogue ensues. For instance: Employer asks a few questions to better understand the impact on the job (can also request documentation of disability) and inquires if the employee has ideas for accommodations. Employer also explains how the accommodations process works at the company, who else might be privy to the information about the disability and accommodations, and the next steps for the employee to expect.
- The employer maintains the employee’s confidentiality throughout the process. The information is solely need-to-know and never should go into a personnel file. Co-workers who might eventually need to adjust their work due to accommodations won’t be told why but obviously will be told about the changes.
- The employee plays a huge role in determining effective accommodations , although the employer is the one to eventually have the final word. Employees know their challenges better than anyone and are familiar with what works and doesn’t work for them. Employers who deny requests for specific accommodations should explain why to employees.
- The employer and employee implement the accommodation(s) according to the plan they made earlier and after any training the employee may have received.
- Both parties track the ongoing effectiveness of the accommodation and document actions taken, adjustments, dates, and the like.
3 Critical Areas Relating to Accommodations
Now, let’s review three critical areas: the essential functions of a job, qualifying disabilities, and reasonable accommodations.
- Essential job functions: Think of these tasks or responsibilities as being the very reasons a job exists. To determine whether a function is essential, you can consider the type of skills or expertise necessary, how many other people at the workplace can do the job, and whether the position is there in the first place for these functions.
- Qualifying disabilities: The ADA describes qualifying disabilities as, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (sometimes referred to in the regulations as an “actual disability”).”11 Disabilities can be obvious, hidden, or somewhere in between. Employers can request medical documentation of need before providing accommodations. The ADA does not have a list of actual disabilities that qualify workers for accommodations.
- Reasonable accommodations: These help employees perform essential functions and benefit from their job like other employees do. Accommodations kick in even for applicants since they are entitled to equal opportunities. Sometimes, accommodations such as ergonomic workstations and flexible schedules end up benefiting all employees. Often, accommodations require only minor changes for free or at a low cost.
- General examples of accommodations include reserving parking spots, adjusting training materials, allowing service dogs, changing work schedules so employees can work from home or attend medical appointments, rearranging the layout of an office, getting screen reader software, and contracting with sighted guides so employees can travel to conferences.
- “Reasonable” depends on what exactly the applicant or employee requests, the work environment, and the interaction between the job and the person’s disability.
- Reasonable accommodations are weighed on a case-by-case basis. Businesses should avoid a “one size fits all” mindset.
- A business might not legally be required to accommodate requests if it has fewer than 15 employees. Check local and state laws for further guidance.A head’s up, though: The 15 includes full-timers and part-timers both.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do employers have to provide hearing aids?
Generally, no, and that can be frustrating for employees seeking assistance with the oft-high costs of hearing aids. Hearing aids are among “personal use” devices that workers use both at work and off the job. Other personal-use examples include prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs.12
Does the ADA cover freelancers? (And independent contractors, temp workers, etc.)
The ADA and most federal laws do not cover freelancers and independent contractors. That said, most accommodations truly are simple and free/low-cost to implement. There’s nothing saying businesses can’t try to accommodate freelancers or independent contractors. As JAN and the Department of Labor explains, 58 percent of accommodations are absolutely free.13
Now, when it comes to temp workers, either the employer or the staffing firm (usually both) do need to follow the ADA and provide reasonable accommodations. To avoid confusion and delay, the contracts between the employer and staffing firm should address which organization provides accommodations and the procedures to follow.14
How does the ADA work during the applications/hiring process?
It’s up to applicants to request any accommodations they need. To expedite the process on both sides, employers should add a statement like, “If you require reasonable accommodation in completing an application, interviewing, completing any pre-employment testing, or otherwise participating in the employee selection process, please direct your inquiries to…” on job ads, job posts, and applications.15
For additional efficiency, many employers designate a point person for accommodations requests. To make contact easier on applicants, it’s best to include more than one method of getting in touch, for example, both email and phone. Examples of possible accommodations during applications or hiring include:
- Written tests given in different formats (Braille, ASL, orally, with a reader, etc.)
- Assistive technology to take a test or validate a skill
- Moving the location of an interview
- Policy modifications (for example, extra time to take a test OR with high temperatures and long lines, allowing an applicant with multiple sclerosis to wait inside instead of outside)
It is a personal decision for applicants to disclose whether they have a disability and need accommodations. Sometimes, they don’t even know until after they start work and better understand the nature of the job. In any case, it is legal for applicants to wait until they have a job offer before disclosing a disability.
You’re not required to provide an accommodation that constitutes an undue hardship. Nor are you mandated to fulfill applicants’ specific accommodation requests. The key is for the accommodation you provide to meet their needs even if it is not the exact one they wanted.
Important: Employers can’t reject applicants for not being able to perform minor job functions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gives the example of Wei, who applies for a file clerk position. A small part of the job (that rarely occurs in practice since others do it) is to answer phones. The employer cannot turn Wei down just because of the phone issue.16
The benefits of accommodations go beyond the direct effects of helping specific employees do their jobs. JAN offers illustrative stats from employers’ perspectives:17
- 90% of employers said accommodations helped them keep a valued employee at the business
- 68% said accommodations boosted productivity
- 57% reported increased employee attendance
- 57% noted increased interactions with co-workers
- 55% said morale throughout the company improved
- 30% noted savings in workers compensation and related costs
Accommodations usually are simple and commonsense, and they go a long way.
References and Endnotes
- Deafness. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Deafness.cfm
- Hearing Impairment. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Hearing-Impairment.cfm
- Speech-Language Impairment. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Speech-Language-Impairment.cfm
- Blindness. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Blind.cfm
- Colorblind/Color Vision Deficiency. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Colorblind-Color-Vision-Deficiency.cfm
- Low Vision. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Low-Vision.cfm
- Cancer. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Cancer.cfm
- Back Impairment. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Back-Impairment.cfm
- Pregnancy. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Pregnancy.cfm
- Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace. (2018). ADA National Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://adata.org/factsheet/reasonable-accommodations-workplace
- How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability Under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/publications/consultants-corner/vol05iss04.cfm
- Focus on Effective Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Hearing Impairments. (2014, Jan.) Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/blogs/jan/2014/10/focus-on-effective-workplace-accommodations-for-employees-with-hearing-impairments.cfm
- Employers and the ADA: Myths and Facts. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/publications/fact-sheets/americans-with-disabilities-act
- Practical Guidance on Contingent Workers and the ADA. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/articles/Practical-Guidance-on-Contingent-Workers-and-the-ADA.cfm
- Streamlining the Interactive Process When Accommodating Job Applicants. . (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/articles/Streamlining-the-Interactive-Process-When-Accommodating-Job-Applicants.cfm
- Job Applicants and the ADA. (n.d.). U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/job-applicants-and-ada
- Benefits and Costs of Accommodation. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://askjan.org/topics/costs.cfm?csSearch=2546498_1
Publications and articles on the legalities of accommodations from JAN legislative specialist Linda Carter Batiste.