Reasonable Accommodations – What are they and when are they required?

Recently, I have written about the “at-will employment” rule and some of its exceptions.  One of those exceptions is an employer’s obligation to provide “reasonable accommodations” to certain employees.  In my experience, this is an obligation that many employers — and, sometimes, employees and their care providers — fail to understand and implement properly.  Unfortunately, this often results in an employee losing his/her job due to a medical condition.  So, what is this “reasonable accommodation” rule and who does it apply to?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and comparable state law protects “qualified individuals with a disability.”  If an employee is a “qualified individual with a disability,” then the ADA prohibits the employer from taking any adverse action against that employee (such as termination or demotion) based on the employee’s disability.  This is classic discrimination law and similar laws protect classifications other than disability (such as gender, religion, race, national origin and sexual orientation.)

The ADA has another – and often misunderstood – requirement, however.  If an employee is a “qualified individual with a disability,” her employer also has an AFFIRMATIVE DUTY to reasonably accommodate that disability so that the employee can do her job, even if the accommodation requires the employer to incur an expense or provide something for the “qualified individual” that it would NOT provide to a non-disabled employee.

An “accommodation” is essentially ANY modification that allows an employee to perform the “essential functions” of his or her job.  Examples include modifying physical facilities to accommodate a mobility issue or other physical impairment, or allowing an employee to take a temporary leave of absence or work a reduced schedule while receiving treatment for depression or another mental health issue.

The employer’s duty to accommodate trumps any internal company policies.  For instance, an employer may have strict no-fault attendance or tardiness policies that provide for termination of employment after a fixed number of absences or tardies per year, regardless of the reason.  Or, the employer may have a mandatory overtime requirement that applies to all employees in a particular department or during particular times of the year.  Nonetheless, the employer may be required to excuse a disabled employee from these policies, and it is no defense that the employer does not similarly excuse non-disabled employees.  That is the point of a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA – it must be provided to accommodate the disability and level the playing field for those individuals who can otherwise perform the essential functions of their jobs.

“Disability,” “qualified individual,” “reasonable accommodation” and “essential functions,” among other terms, have distinct legal meanings under the ADA.  Whether an individual employee is “disabled” under the ADA or otherwise a “qualified individual” depends on the employee’s particular impairment and the specific duties of that employee’s job.  Whether an accommodation is “reasonable” depends on still other factors, including the size and resources of the employer.  In disability discrimination and failure-to-accommodate cases, these issues are often vigorously contested.  Thorough development of the relevant evidence and proper presentation of these issues to a Court is critical to the employee’s success in a disability discrimination or failure-to-accommodate case.

Then again, if you were me, you would say that is where the fun begins. . .

I represent individuals and businesses in a variety of employment matters, including claims for unemployment benefits, cases involving violations of wage and hour laws, gender, disability and other forms of discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation claims.

Click here if you would like to speak with me about your own wrongful termination or employment-related issue, and thanks for reading.

34 thoughts on “Reasonable Accommodations – What are they and when are they required?

  1. I was fired for smoking in the work truck. there is no policy included in the employee handbook. I did not sign anything acknowledging this policy. No verbal discussion ever took place relative to this. Ironically I was injured on the job 2 weeks earlier. I had filed an incident report after the injury. Also went to urgent care for treatment. I was put on restriction by the doctor at that time. No effort was made to provide for my restriction. I continued to work because I need the money. A week later the injury was worse. I told my immediate boss I was unable to perform all functions of my job because of the pain. The next morning I was fired.

    1. David – I may be able to help. You should contact me directly at the office (978/534-9771) so that we can discuss this further. Thanks for your comment. Regards, Janie

  2. Hi there,
    I am supervisor in a NYC school. I recently hurt my knee while walking out of the school. I showed up after my injury with a note from the doctor for an accomodation to bring my classess downsatirs instead of walking up and down stairs. In addition, I requested to transfer to a building with an elevator since my building has no elevator and I teach on the fourth floor. My principal said that “if I dont go up the stairs she can not support me”. I was fearing for my job and I did finally go up the steps. Since then I have had more problems with my other knee and my neck. A few days later I got letter that I was insubordinate and deriliction of duty over inaccurately marking a student absent. In addition, I found out on my own that I could have filled a special form on line through the department of education medical division for accomodations. I went through many heads of the department yet nobody had this information for me. I have been ignored by many. Only the union has written me back. However, they too failed to tell me this.I beleive I am being targeted in retaliation because of my disability.

    1. John:

      My practice is in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but I would suggest that you contact an attorney in New York that handles plaintiff/employee-side disability discrimination matters.

      I wish you the best of luck, and thank you for reading the blog.



  3. I just list my job I got hurt at home and I’m going to have knee surgery in January and I was able to go back to work under restriction I took the doctor slip to my work and they fired me for not being able to do my job what can I do

    1. You need to speak to an employment attorney immediately. My practice is in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and I would be happy to speak with you if you were employed in either one of those states. Otherwise, contact an employment attorney in your state right away. Here is my contact information.



  4. Recently, my employer threatens to terminate me if I didn’t accept the night shift position. I have work day shifts for years before my work related injury, they claim that this was a job offer based on my restrictions and they can fire me. I told them that I have a child with serious health issues and can’t be left alone at nights, my employer said that these were my personal problems and if I refuse any job offer I WILL BE TERMINATED, can they do this?

  5. I had ACDF surgery on 04/3014 and was released on 07/01/14 w/ restrictions. Submitted to my employer who blatantly said no to the accommodations w/ no explanations. I sat home from that point until my FMLA until 07/30/14. I was sent a letter dated 07/21/14 informing that a dialogue would start surrounding accommodations. My doctor completed the job task assessment and informed them I could perform my job w/ restrictions. I have been re-evaluated on 08/11/14 with only 3 of the 6 prior restrictions. Employer did not respond to this 2nd request until 08/19/14 informing me I’d be getting an option letter to resign or be terminated. I’ve filed EEOC & MCCR charges against them for discrimination. What else can I do?

  6. doctor just wrote an order stated I should not be standing for more than 4 hrs in a day. I am a cashier where I have been doing constant standing and my back cannot take it. must the employer at the very least provide me a chair or only schedule me for 4 hr shifts? while i have had a bad back it has been agrivated by the constant standing on bare concrete floors.

  7. I have OSA and have explained this to my employer on numerous occasions. Now at times I find myself nodding or dozing off without doing it intentionally. I do everything in my power to keep myself awake but there’s those days where good isn’t good enough. Now I work in a call center environment and I can do my job functionally without it hurting me I feel but the “acting supervisor” is starting to threaten me and have someone spy on me when she leaves early. What accommodation can I ask for? What can I do about this ? In this day and age it’s hard to come by a decent job and I can’t afford to lose my job.

  8. I have received a lot of great comments recently in response to this post. Many of those comments specify the state in which the writer was/is employed. The blog is intended to provide general information, and is not a confidential setting in which I can provide legal advice specific to individual circumstances. Many of you should speak to an employment attorney immediately, however.

    My practice is in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and I would be happy to speak with you if you were employed in either one of those states. Otherwise, contact an employment attorney in your state right away. Here is my contact information.

    Thank you again for reading the blog.



  9. I am doing some research for paper and am hoping you can assist me. The scenario would be more for an employee with a non-physically apparent need like a broken arm or such but an internal or mental issue causing the disability, this would create a need for a specific discussion with the employee and possibly treating doctor as to what accommodations would allow the employee to perform the essential duties. So would the disabled employee have to ask for an accommodation from the employer, or is the employer required to offer and explore the “reasonableness” of the accommodation(s) needed with the employee?

    Say because of the non-physical impairment, the employee is unaware that accommodations are possible in their given situation, like additional breaks, or a quieter workspace away from constant distractions, etc. If the burden is on the employer and no offer or mention of accommodations takes place, and the disabled employee is then discharged specifically because FMLA/benefit time is exhausted and they are still not released by their doctor to return to work without restriction and it is only after discharge the employee learns of reasonable accommodations under ADA, does the employee have any recourse in that type of situation?

    Or is not knowing your rights not an excuse, much like a speeder saying they shouldn’t get a ticket because they didn’t see the speedlimit sign…too bad it was posted, not the officer’s fault they did not see it?

    This is just regarding the way the ADA is apllied/enforced, not state specific.
    I apologize for asking questions than may very well be mute points depending and the answer to my first question but wanted to be prepared. I look forward to a response. Thank you for any assistance and for having this blog as a knowledge base for the internet at large. 🙂

  10. I’m a salaried employee. I work 10 hour shifts but am pregnant and had severe morning sickness and the fact that all my babies were born prematurely to some degree… My doctor switched my shifts to 6 hours. I was working 11-5. I told my boss when I was switched that I need to take nausea MeDS that I can NOT drive on at dinner time. Now she has me on a 630-1230/1 am closing shift. The hardest in the store and its impossible to take my medicine!.. she has written me up for being late when I was sick as well. Not sure what to do. I’m sure the shift change was retaliation.

    1. Thanks again for the comments and questions. Readers should remember that the blog comment section is not the place for me to provide confidential legal advice about your specific situation. You should speak privately to an attorney about your individual circumstances. For those of you who were/are employed in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, you should feel free to contact me directly. Otherwise, you should immediately contact an attorney in your state that handles plaintiff/employee-side disability discrimination claims. Best of luck, and thanks again for reading the blog.



  11. I was fired today for i have stated in interview that i had a special needs child and i was tardy 4 times and they said it was 7 times also i was out for a week due to sciatica nerve and had doctors notes. I was released with restrictions to rturn to my job and was called in today to bring my doctors notes and was given my parting papers and not given a chance to make a that legal to do.

  12. I worked in the OR and -had to stand for long periods during each case, when I was around 5mnths pregnant I went in to preterm labor. I had to have a surgical procedure to prevent my child from being born to early and was told I could not stand for more than 3 hours a day. I normally had to stand 7/8 hours a day with my shift. My employer let me take my FMLA but after it ran out they terminated me because I was no longer able to perform my job due to not being able to stand during my shift. I was denied unemployment. Is this right?

  13. a couple weeks into the new year, I was at work and discovered a lump in my lower abdominal which as diagnosed as an inguinal hernia. The result of this diagnosis was I shouldn’t do any heavy lifting and I need surgery to repair it. Unfortunately my work is claiming its not an at-work injury and I’m left to deal on my own. I work at a restaurant and the majority of my work involves lifting several things most weighing over 20 lbs. I was working an average of 32-40 hours per week before this. I’m very versatile in the kitchen and there is another position I can perform without limitations but I’m getting about half the hours I used to get. I tried having accommodations to my normal position(s) but my managers were not very proactive in helping me out.

  14. I just lost my job in Ohio as a dental hygienist . I have had a chronic cough that can do away for awhile with steroids but has come back. I was told before that I need to get my cough figurd out . I had a patient complain as well. It is not contagious , and I say excuse me my allergic asthma. Long story short he typed a letter explained why he was letting me go and he said primarily I didn’t share his enthusiasm of our dental consultants and seemed to be negative about the direction we were going inThe office. I never had any warnings , he never discussed this with me at all and every aspect of my job can show that I was on board doing what was asked of me and producing great numbers for our office . He mentioned secondarily my cough and how it is can be thought of as a disease or something contagious and it doesn’t permit him to do his job happily. Can he legally fire me for my cough? Thank you for your time

  15. I was recently on a 2 week hitch working in north Dakota at another one of my employers branch’s they didnt even ask me if i wanted to go or if i could even go they had already bought my plane ticket and everything with out my concent of going pretty much it was a either you go or get fired kind of deal as i was on my way back on sunday from north Dakota after i had worked my 2 weeks there my co worker/good friend of mine sends me a pic of my termination paperwork and my paid vacation for a week was to start that following monday so of course i wasnt goin to show up at work when i had already put in my vacation notice for that week so now my manager is tryen to say i quit but he doesn’t know i have a picture of my termination paper can he do that?

  16. I recently got sick and had to file with FMLA through HR advisement. I had 3 restrictions and one if them was not to drive for more than an hour – I was told I should have Dr adjust this which I did. I went back to work recently, and I feel I am being punished . My co worker and director did not even ask how I was doing . Rumors have it that they are upset because I left work undone and they feel I stayed away to avoid doing the job . Last year I was recognized as employee of the year and this year I’m being tramped on. I feel uncomfortable and even started to look for new work- what can be done . I love my job and just want to do it and go home to my family.

  17. I continue to receive a lot of comments and questions to this post. I have personally spoken to some of you, particularly those in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. You are all entitled to have your legitimate questions answered in a confidential setting, so you should contact me directly by calling the office (978-534-9771) or offline via email ( if you are/were employed in MASSACHUSETTS or NEW HAMPSHIRE. Otherwise, you should immediately contact an attorney in your that state that handles employment matters.

    Thanks again for reading the blog.



  18. I am a limousine driver. I have been having problems with my neck for a month. Then I tripped at home and my neck froze so I couldn’t turn, y head so I couldnt drive. I gave my boss 2 days notice before my next scheduled run so he could cover it. He told me ok take care you still have a job here. Before I even got in to see a doctor 2 business days later he fired me when I asked why, he said due to my neck injury that didn’t allow me to turn my head. What can I do??

  19. My daughter is being terminated for closing her eyes for a minute and “looking tired”. She was recently dx with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy and a sleep disorder. Her meds make her tired but not unable to work. Her productivity is not down . It was suggested that she file FMLA papers to protect her job. Now they are trying to terminate her. No accommodations were made
    She sits at a computer all day with maybe one break. Does she have any recourse? We live in Texas

  20. Hurt my back in 2008 had surgery in 2010 then went back to work I have now been experiencing lots of back pain and been on 25 hour weeks. I know have spinal stenosis,lumbar radiculopathy, neuropathy and 3 bulging disk ask if they would consider me going on part time disablity they told me no they need a full time employee and someone that can do the lifting that leaves me out can they get rid of me ?

  21. I was injured as a civil servant in 2008….The employer put me on light duty and put me on saved pay, which landed me in a position where the employer forced me to accept a position that paid significantly less, otherwise I would be unemployed with nothing due to refusing to accept the scraps of income that they offered. and where I would only get half the cost of living raises each year until my salary was in essence reduced over time…this in essence was their way around the laws….I had a flare up of the related muscles, do to a new supervisor assigning me work that violated my established restrictions which previous supervisors were aware of….now the supervisor blames me for her not knowing about my restrictions prior to assigning me to a position that would cause my muscles to tighten up in the fusion location of the previous injury….I am wondering if the supervisor is at fault, since previous supervisors were aware and since it was documented extensively?

  22. My wife broke a bone in her foot two months ago and had to take medical leave for a week while she recovered from surgery. She is a full time night manager at a fitness club and need to be constantly on her feet and walking around. So far her employer has been accommodating by changing her shift to the day time and keeping her off her feet as much as possible. recently however she was told that by March 31st that the current shift they moved her to was going to be unavailable and she had to go back to working her old shift or be forced to take medical leave. Nothing else was said to her directly but the part time employee that used to work days and now works most of my wife’s night shifts has become very disgruntled and has said she refuses to work the night shifts anymore and that she will only work the day shifts that my wife works. My wife has her second follow up and we are hoping for good news and for things to be healed but is there anything that should be done before the end of the month to protect her moving forward. we live in Massachusetts.

  23. Thanks to all who continue to read the blog, and for the comments and questions. Most of these questions are legitimately very fact-specific and/or deal with employers in states outside of the ones in which I practice (that is, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.) The best response I can provide on the blog — because the blog posts and my responses are NOT confidential — is to urge readers to contact an attorney in their home state that represents plaintiffs/employees in termination or discrimination cases. For those of you in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, feel free to contact me directly at the office — via phone at 978-534-9771 or email at — so that I can give you confidential advice in response to your specific situation.

    Thanks again for reading and best of luck.

    Regards, Janie

  24. I had what doctors to believe to be a stroke on June 10th i spent 4 days in the hospital and due to multiple follow up appointments and tests and the complications that could arise i was told to not go back for 2 weeks. Well Monday my boss called and said he had to let me go because my absence was puttimg a srain on the company. He did not gove me any other accommodations or options. And i am told i dont qualify for unemployment because I cant activity seek work or physically work. So now in the middle of all my medical issues I am jobless, about to be insuranceless, and cant get unemployment. So i might have a major medical problem with no insurance for treatment.

  25. I am bipolar and I’m having serious issues with my boss. I was told if I miss anymore time I would be fired. If I call in one day I have to have a DR note. She found out my daughter is a drug addict so she explained to me if better not interfere with my job as in time off being late or looking depressed at work Since finding this out she has doubled my work load and told me she didn’t want to hear any complaining from me or look upset at my desk which is in the reception area. She acts as if she wants me to quit while I was getting my meds redone she gave me a terrible evaluation saying I was absent from work to much I was distracted could not stay in my seat. Everything she wrote on there was due to my meds being messed up. What can I do? She knows I’m bipolar but she says I’m on meds so no excuses. I’m so stressed I’ve asked to have my meds upped. And when I ask for time off they told me that if I miss to much I would be replaced. Help me.

    1. Ann:

      It sounds like you need some legal advice specific to your situation. This should be done in a confidential setting, and not on the blog. My practice is in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If you are employed in either one of these states, feel free to contact me directly at to discuss your situation further. Otherwise, you should contact an attorney in your state that handles plaintiff-employee side disability discrimination claims.

      Thanks for reading the blog.



  26. My husband works in a call center and is currently being treated for thyroid cancer. This treatment has caused him to lose his voice. He has been told that since he cannot talk he will use sick days, vacation days and then go on FMLA. We need a paycheck.


    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Kelly. Your husband should work with his doctors and employer to see if reasonable accommodations can be identified. If you are in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, contact me — — to discuss your situation further. Otherwise, you should contact an attorney in your state that handles plaintiff-employee side disability discrimination claims.

      Take Care,


  27. I am a product technician in a food manufacturing facility and my employer has put me on short term disability . I have rheumatoid arthritis and cannot do constant lifting of 28 lbs every 5 seconds on a job I’m farmed out to do when my line is down.I’ve had ra for 8 years and have an intermittant fmla, I also have had for the last 3 years restrictions on the job of heavy labor the lifting if 27 lbs every 5 seconds per shuft. WE have a new hr lady and she’s had my doctor review my job right jib which doesn’t run all year and had my dr. REVIEW it in full detaul. I am ok to do my assigned job when it runs, but the job that hurts my RA is a job I’m being forced to with the heavy labor 27lbs. Every 5 seconds . They have put me on short term disability leave as my job is down and I’m having to be crewehat dies this mean fir me??d on the heavy labor jib wich will cause my RA to flare up, therefore the company is in the process of trying o wto contact my doctir to discuss my restrictions and accimidatiins, s

    1. Rhonda:

      It seems that the answer to your questions depends on what are the essential (versus non-essential) functions of your job. As a general suggestion, you should ask your employer to identify the essential versus non-essential functions, and then ask your doctor for advice on accommodations that will allow you to continue with the essential functions.

      Beyond that, my practice is in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If you are employed in either one of these states, feel free to contact me — — to discuss your situation further. Otherwise, you should contact an attorney in your state that handles plaintiff-employee side disability discrimination claims.

      Best of luck.


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