Note: The following is based on personal experience and is not intended as legal or medical advice. Please consult all appropriate professionals when making decisions regarding health and work conditions.
Asking for disability accommodations at work is a stressful proposition. What accommodations do you request? How much of your personal health history do you need to disclose in order to get accommodations? What will your employer do after you've made your disability accommodation request?
And this isn't even touching on the issue of how many of us with disabilities have to struggle with the feeling of imposter syndrome about our own health: are our needs severe or important enough to be worth asking for help?
I am not a lawyer or a doctor but I am someone who has gone through the process of asking for work accommodations. I can't give legal or medical advice but I can walk you through what it was like for me as someone in the United States to go through the steps and what my personal tips are based on my experience. I can also point you in the direction of some helpful resources to give you a better shot when you request disability accommodations of your own.
Also I can assure you that even after years of writing the word "accommodations" over and over I still struggle to spell it right on the first try. That one might not be universal but on the odd chance you have that problem too you are not alone.
Anyway, let's get into it.
How The Americans With Disabilities Act Helps You (And How It Doesn't)
The first thing that comes up in any discussion about disability accommodations is The Americans With Disabilities Act or ADA. This is a wonderful piece of legislation which, put in extreme layperson's terms, requires businesses to be accessible to those with disabilities, be it as customers or employees.
The good news is that the ADA is what gives you, the employee, the right to ask for disability accommodations. The bad news, and the thing which many people get wrong about the ADA, is that it is not a guarantee that you will get what you ask for.
I know this might be soul crushing to hear but trust me when I say it helps to temper your expectations of what the ADA does. It is not a magic wand. Too many people think that all they need to do is cite the ADA and poof! They get their wish! The finest of accommodations! No medical disclosures needed! Create the perfect job and setup for everything you could ever need to make your job ideal for your personal situation!
It does none of that.
What the ADA does is require employers to try. That's it.
So my first piece of personal advice about asking for disability accommodations is to temper your expectations. Even in the best of companies which understand that fostering the needs of good employees in turn advances the good of the company, they will not necessarily give you what you ask for the second you ask it. (I'll talk more about this in just a bit.)
In the worst of companies, well, frankly they're going to try to do whatever they can to say oh gosh, they tried but it didn't work out. Too bad.
If you are sitting there debating about asking for disability accommodations at your place of work, think about what your place of work is like. Are they supportive? Do they actually care about the health and well being of their employees in general or do they pay lip service to the concept while pressuring people to come in even when they're sick?
Take the answers to those questions and use that to adjust your goals and preparations accordingly.
Are You Disabled Enough To Request Accommodations?
There are two parts to the question of whether or not we're disabled enough to request work accommodations: what the law says, and what we personally feel.
According to the ADA, the definition of disability is "an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment."
There's more on the legal definition at the link in terms of what counts as substantial or a major life activity. But for the purpose of keeping things simple here the idea is that if it's something medical which prevents you from doing your job to the best of your ability and which could be mitigated by an accommodation of some kind then you're good to go. Your job, after all, is a major life activity.
In terms of your own personal feelings what I can say is that I get it. Many of us with chronic illness and disabilities struggle with imposter syndrome. Our brains tell us it's not that bad. There are other people who have it so much worse than we do. We could be fine if we tried harder, and so on.
To say nothing of how our work culture encourages the idea that a good employee never complains, never takes a sick day, and gives 110% every minute no matter what.
It's hard. Everyone's circumstances are different.
My advice, then, is to take time to look at your situation. Try to think of objective things, such as how often do you need to take a sick day? How often are you late for work, or need to leave early due to your symptoms flaring up? Are you turning in work that you're proud of or do you know you could've done a better job if you weren't in as much pain, or your depression wasn't making it so hard to think?
What do your doctors say? Are they concerned about your symptoms getting worse or more frequent? How about your friends? What do they tell you when you ask for an honest assessment of whether your job is helping or hurting your well being?
Ultimately the answer is up to you but these are things which can guide your decision.
To give the example of my own personal case, my health had taken a marked turn for the worse, particularly with regards to my migraines. What used to be no more than 3-4 migraines per year turned into one every week which lasted for at least four days each. On top of that my neurologist flat out told me that she couldn't properly do her job as long as my job was in the way. She recommended I try working from home to try to cut down on my exposure to migraine triggers at the office. I could tell that my health was getting in the way of me working as much as I wanted to, so I put in the request.
Now this is an extreme situation but it still gives the idea that there are things outside of ourselves that we can look to. It doesn't just have to be a gut check against potential feelings of guilt about whether we deserve to ask for help.
Is It Worth It To Ask For Disability Accommodations?
I want to address this question as it is important. But I cannot stress enough this is not legal or medical advice. I am answering this for you, the reader, in the same way I do when people come to talk to me one on one about what I went through. This is 100% my personal opinion based on my personal experience. No more, no less.
That caveat out of the way, I would say in my experience it is worth it to request disability accommodations if an accommodation would truly benefit you in some way and/or if you are worried about being discriminated against because of your disability.
The first one pretty much speaks for itself. Would an ergonomic keyboard help prevent your repetitive stress injury from acting up? Then ask for the keyboard. If it will genuinely help your health go nuts. Even if you're not 100% sure you could try asking on a trial basis and see how it goes, and I'll get more into the details of this in a bit.
For the second, again I cannot stress enough I am not a lawyer. But if you are worried about discrimination, for example if your symptoms might come across as a bad work ethic, it's not a bad idea to get it on the record that you have a disability.
Note: not that you should lie and make up health problems or accommodation needs you don't have, and not that having a disability excuses genuinely poor work performance. Instead I mean things like if you've recently changed medications and are dealing with side effects while your body adjusts it might be a good idea to tell your boss that if you look sleepy over the next two weeks it's due to a health matter and not because you don't care about staying awake in meetings.
Basically until you say "I have a disability" to your job then they don't know it and they can't be expected to do anything about it. So, again in my experience, it's worth it to have the conversation if you think you can get a benefit (like an accommodation) or some protection (it's on the record that you have a disability.)
Now I know, some jobs will discriminate because they know you have a disability. Not necessarily in obvious ways like denying you a promotion, but in more subtle ways, especially if your disability comes with a stigma attached such as mental illness.
To that end all I can say is that I sympathize and totally get it. In my case I never disclosed my depression and anxiety. I only talked about my migraines and was in the odd position of being grateful that my migraines were bad enough that accommodating them encompassed accommodations I needed for my mental health. If it had only been my mental health I don't know that I could've had the courage to ask.
But, again based on my experience, there is that benefit of getting the words "I have a disability" on the record. It won't necessarily protect you from being discriminated against at all. But it is a step that will give you some legal benefit if it's there.
What Disability Accommodations Should You Ask For?
Everyone's situation is different. There is no one size fits all answer for accommodations, even for people who have the same disability. What triggers my migraines may not trigger someone else's, for example.
What I will say is that when you ask for accommodations you should come prepared with a list of what those accommodations might be. Reason being that Human Resources does not actually have that information. There's no secret HR handbook where, when an employee asks for disability accommodations, they go "Sure! Let's look you up in the index of Accommodations For Dummies!" and they find the solutions.
Who does have solutions, however, is the aptly named Job Accommodation Network. The Job Accommodation Network, or JAN, is one of the best resources for anyone dealing with workplace disability accommodation needs. They offer information about ADA and the workplace, and even have a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource, or SOAR,* where you can put in your illness, your symptom, or even your trigger and find all the information they have about what your options are.
(* Between JAN and SOAR you have to tip your hat to their Tony Stark-like level of ability to work an acronym.)
Having a list of potential accommodations that could work for you is important because, as we mentioned earlier, the ADA is not a magic wand. While there may be an accommodation that would be the one you get in an ideal universe, that's not the one your employer is necessarily required to give you. And that is because of two key words known as Reasonable Accommodations.
What Are Reasonable Accommodations And How Do You Prepare For Them?
According to the ADA's definition section, a reasonable accommodation is something which allows someone with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job without undue hardship to the employer.
There's a few things to unpack there. The short version is: reasonable accommodations means they don't have to give you exactly what you ask for.
Now let's get into slightly longer. If you want the actual wording of the definitions check the link, I'm breaking this down into plain language again.
Essential Functions: What is absolutely required for the job to be the job. For example, if you work as an airline pilot then flying a plane is an essential function of your job. It's not reasonable for you to ask to be a pilot who spends all their time on the ground, even if your disability is a fear of heights.
Undue Hardship: Does it cost your employer too much money to put the accommodation into place and/or does it interfere with their operations too much to put this into place. For example, it may help your migraines to have a light and soundproof room installed in the middle of the office for you to retreat to when your migraines flare, but it's not reasonable to ask a company to take on that expense and construction work.
Which then brings us to reasonable, which the ADA gives examples of, such as modified work schedules, but the plain terms version of it is does it help you do the job while not harming the company?
When asking for disability accommodations, then, what should you do to prepare for the question of reasonable accommodations?
First, get the definition of your job. Well organized companies will already have this written down somewhere, and you can usually ask your boss or HR for it. If they don't have this written down somewhere, you can try going back to the job posting when you first applied and getting the list of what they asked for from that. You may also be able to take information from your performance reviews, since the requirements of your job are what you are typically graded on.
If there truly is absolutely nothing, sit down and write up your own list of job responsibilities as you understand them. It may not be official but it's something concrete to use to start the conversation with.
Then, once you have the list, think about it in terms of what is and isn't essential. For example, it may be essential that the person doing your job needs to produce and distribute the TPS report every Friday morning, but it may not be essential that the person be sitting in the office building while they did it and thus they could work from home. Or it might be essential that the TPS report go out before noon on Friday but otherwise the timing of it being delivered could be flexible to accommodate the need for a break to do physical therapy exercises, or to take medication.
So really sit and think about this. Talk with your doctors. Figure out what are your ideal accommodations, then figure out what some good alternate accommodations might be. Because remember: they don't have to give you your accommodation request, they have to try to give you a reasonable accommodation request. The more options you have that you can work with increases the odds that they might agree that at least one of those options works for them.
Once you have all this in mind, now you're prepared for the conversation with your employer.
What Should You Do When You Ask For Disability Accommodations?
Depending on how your company works and how comfortable you feel, you can talk to your boss or to HR about disability accommodations. Regardless of who you start with, it's recommended that you put the request in writing.
I'm going to agree with that recommendation as well as say there is no such thing as documenting too much. Keep notes of everything, every meeting, every casual conversation on the topic that happened even if it was on the schedule or not. Document, document, document. If that feels weird, let me assure you that your employer, if they are smart and a functional company, is doing the exact same thing on their end. In a worst case scenario neither one of you wants to have to debate how things went down based purely on people's faulty memories.
The easiest way to document is email, both because it is written and because it has time stamps. Again, I am not a lawyer but my recommendation from my personal experience is use email and copy yourself in everything. Save all emails about this in their own folder for easy access. If it's allowed and doesn't break any laws or contracts you've signed regarding confidentiality, you may also want to BCC emails to a personal account just so you have them in a worst case scenario of losing access to your computer or the drive where the emails are saved. (Again: make sure doing this won't get you into legal trouble!!)
Use emails to document the entire process - such as requesting meetings by email instead of by phone - but you can also simply email yourself to make a note of something that just happened, again because it has the benefit of the time stamp. So let's say you request a meeting by email but HR calls you back to reply to it. You could email yourself saying "John Smith in HR called me just now to say accommodation meeting would have to wait to be scheduled for when Barb Jones is back from vacation on Monday."
Email your request to ask for disability accommodations. This could be as simple as "Hi, Boss Name, can we set up a meeting? I need to ask about some accommodations for my disability. How's Tuesday at 2 work for your schedule?"
After meetings and phone calls, use email to confirm what was discussed and the agreed on next steps. It helps to take notes during the meetings to remember. But for example "Hi, Boss Name, just confirming that during our meeting today we discussed the need for me to have a flexible work schedule to accommodate my disability. This will begin this upcoming Monday with my start time being allowed to be anytime between 9 and 10:30am. We agreed that it was important for me to meet my deadlines regardless of when I arrived. We also agreed to meet three weeks from today to review how the arrangement was working and if it could continue as-is or if it needs to be adjusted. Let me know if I'm missing or forgot anything else we went over. Thank you."
Note that the key things here are that it covers specific topics, agreements, and dates. That way when the next meeting happens there can't be any questions about what was arranged.
Now let's talk about those arrangements.
What Happens When You Ask For Disability Accommodations?
When you put in your request, regardless of whether or you go to your boss or to HR, the next step is going to be a meeting of some kind. That is because the ADA requires your employer to engage in what's known as an interactive process to find a way to accommodate you. In other words, they have to talk to you about it.
Now the good news is this might be a simple conversation. You get brought into your boss or HR's office, possibly with both your boss and a member of HR there, and they say we got your request for a special lamp for your desk to reduce your migraines, here's the lamp, let us know when you need the bulb replaced, have a great day.
So don't panic when you get told that there's a meeting and that HR is involved even if you didn't ask for them to be. Yes, always remember that HR works for your employer and not for you (so have reasonable expectations about what they can do for you) but their mere presence in this meeting isn't a red flag. Again, if your employer is smart and competent they will make sure HR is involved in the accommodation process simply to make sure it's done correctly. It's their job to know how to follow the steps required by the ADA. Not, as we've already covered, what all the options are to accommodate you personally, but to know how to make sure the needs of the ADA are fulfilled.
(Similarly if you go to HR directly they may get your boss involved since your boss will be the one most likely overseeing the day to day aspects of how your accommodations affect your job.)
More complicated is when your employer pushes back. You asked for a work from home schedule and they say no, for instance. This is sadly not uncommon. But the good news is that you prepared for this by knowing your job functions and researching accommodation options.
This is when the "interactive" part of the process kicks off. Both you and your employer can now have a conversation about what solutions could work for the both of you. Maybe you asked to work from home all the time but three days out of five would work just as well. Or maybe you asked to work from home to get away from migraine triggers but instead they can offer you a desk in a darker and quieter location which would give a similar benefit.
You get the idea.
Another option to offer is the idea of trying things out temporarily and then revisiting. This is particularly useful for accommodations that don't require a purchase of some kind, such as a flexible schedule or allowing work from home. Sometimes an employer's reluctance can be soothed by saying hey, let's just try it for three months (or one month, or two weeks, or one week) and see how it goes. Then, once they see that the world didn't end, they're okay for letting it continue. It can help to immediately put that follow up meeting on the calendar so they can see you're committed to the agreement to revisit it.
Granted, after that time period they may say they didn't like it and you're back to the negotiating table again. But it can still help to offer this as a suggestion.
Depending on how this goes, it may not get solved in the first meeting so don't let that panic you either. For instance some offices have ridiculous levels of politics and status symbols so simply giving somebody a standing desk to accommodate their back pain might need several levels of discussion because at some point it was decided only senior vice presidents could get standing desks and you're only at director level so now egos have to be soothed or whatever.
(I'm not saying I personally dealt with a situation not dissimilar from this but I'm not not saying it either. Ahem.)
Regardless, after this meeting you already know what to do: Send an email to everyone who was there which recaps the meeting, what was discussed, what was agreed, and what the schedule is for next steps.
What Are The Next Steps?
The interactive process about your accommodations may involve more than one meeting. During this they may also ask for documentation from your doctor. Because you have asked for a disability accommodation, your employer can now ask for information about your disability. However this doesn't mean that you have to hand over every copy of every medical record in your files. A letter from a relevant doctor is fine (in other words don't give a note from your eye doctor if the disability is managed by your cardiologist.)
The letter only needs to cover the basics for your accommodation. So, for example, it doesn't necessarily need to say "Because of a back injury on this specific part of the spine, my patient needs to be able to talk a walk every day at precisely 11:30am for 30 minutes." Don't quote me on this exact wording because again I am neither a doctor nor a lawyer, but a more general "Due to injury patient needs work accommodations to mitigate symptoms." type of letter might be fine.
It can depend on your needs and the situation. For instance when I started my accommodation process a general "Patient needs accommodations due to neurological disorder" (aka my migraines) was fine. But later on when - uh - let's say a friend of mine needed accommodations that had an office politics aspect to them, that friend of mine was asked if their doctor could write down the more specific need to help the employer protect themselves from being accused of giving special treatment to one person.
Again, not a lawyer nor a doctor, but I would try starting with as general as you can while still giving your employer what they need and only get more specific if requested to.
Regardless, in general this information should be handled by HR, and depending on the size of the company may even be one specific person in HR who keeps this in a locked file that they're not allowed to show anyone. You can absolutely ask about how your privacy will be kept before you hand anything over.
What Do You Do When Your Disability Accommodation Request Isn't Granted?
This is the hard one. You tried. You came prepared with options and they were turned down. You pointed to your essential job functions and they disagreed. Maybe even the worst of the worst: you asked for accommodations and they told you if that if you kept asking you wouldn't have a job anymore. (Or, more sneaky, told you that they would redefine the "essential functions" of your job to ensure your accommodation requests wouldn't be considered reasonable.)
It happens. Some companies suck, there's no way around it. At this point what you do next is up to you. Some people get a lawyer and push back. Some people don't have the spoons for a legal fight and opt to work without accommodations because they desperately need the money and the health insurance the job provides. Others get accommodations but much, much reduced ones that are nowhere near what their doctors recommend figuring at least a sliver of something is better than nothing.
I can't tell you what to do. It's ultimately your decision.
What I can tell you is that documenting everything helps. If you go the legal route having that detailed, time stamped documentation is a big advantage. (I can neither confirm nor deny sitting in a meeting with a CEO who said his worst nightmare was a former employee with a stack of detailed documentation.)
I can tell you that if you go the legal route be aware that there is usually a statue of limitations on when you can take that option. This may depend on your state so you'll need to research the exact time frame, but it's usually a set amount of time from when the incident(s) occurred.
There's also the option of reporting your employer to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, which is responsible for enforcing things like the ADA.
But again this depends on if you have the spoons for the fight, or feel okay taking the risk of reporting when you don't have another job to go to. In which case all I can say is I get it. I've been there. You have my sympathy. A hug from a virtual stranger may not mean much but you've got one from me all the same.
What Do You Do When Your Disability Accommodation Request Is Granted?
You made your request, went through the interactive process, and either got the accommodation you wanted or an accommodation that might work. Congratulations! Now what?
Keep documenting. Even in the best case scenario where everything is great, everyone was supportive, nobody could do enough to make sure you felt understood and given what you needed, it hurts nothing to keep documenting. It's like back when you move in with a friend as a roommate: it can be great at first but doesn't hurt to have an agreement on who gets the dining room table if things go sour.
So document. Have that follow up meeting if it was a temporary arrangement and document how that went. Do your accommodations and document how they go. Especially document anything related to your performance, be it an officially scheduled review with your boss or even someone at the company sending you a note to say that Friday morning TPS report has been amazing, thanks so much for getting it out on time!
Basically you want to hang on to things that cover the accommodation agreement and how the accommodations are impacting your performance. Hopefully you never need it, hopefully everything works great and you can do your job without harming yourself and your boss is as understanding as can be and nothing is ever wrong again.
But just in case you get a new boss, or your health changes, or something happens it's good to make sure you've got everything written down just in case.
Key Things To Remember About Asking For Disability Accommodations
And there we have it! What it's like to ask for disability accommodations at your job. To summarize, the key things to remember are:
- Document everything. Your request, your job functions, the meetings had, the agreements made, everything. If there is one step about applying for disability accommodations that is the most important to remember, it is to document everything.
- Reasonable Accommodations means your employer has to try to accommodate you, it doesn't mean they have to succeed.
- Use the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) to research accommodation options and help prepare for your meeting
- Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Good luck. I hope it goes well, and I hope my non-medical, non-legal advice could help at least in some way.
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