The ADA and Reasonable Accommodation

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate to end discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  The law works to ensure that people with disabilities are given equal access to employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunication.


One of the important steps in fulfilling your inclusion commitment being ready to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and participants with disabilities.  This section of Chapter 5 focuses on what you need to know about providing reasonable accommodation. 


For more information regarding the ADA, consult the ADA Technical Assistance CD-ROM available from the U.S. Department of Justice.


Basic ADA Terminology and Requirements

A qualified applicant or participant with a disability means an individual who satisfies the requisite skills, experience, education, and other service-related requirements of the position and can perform the essential functions of the position, with or without reasonable accommodation.  Essential functions are those duties that are so fundamental to the position that the individual holds or desires that s/he cannot do the job without performing them.


A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy equal service opportunities.  Reasonable accommodation includes adjustments to assure that qualified individuals have rights and privileges equal to those of participants without disabilities.


The ADA does not require programs to provide accommodations that pose an undue hardship.  An undue hardship is defined as a reasonable accommodation that causes significant difficulty or expense.  However, it is important to remember that most accommodations are not expensive nor do they involve a great deal of effort to implement.


Requirements for Making Reasonable Accommodations

National Service programs and activities must be accessible to persons with disabilities and the grantee must provide reasonable accommodations to the known disabilities of qualified service providers and applicants.  All selections and project assignments must be made without regard to the need to provide reasonable accommodation.


In keeping with and supporting the spirit of the ADA, accommodations should be made without regard to coverage under the ADA when it is reasonable to do so.  The Corporation for National and Community Service and the MCSC are committed to making service opportunities available to people with disabilities.  This is the primary goal to keep in mind when making decisions about providing accommodations.


Funding for Reasonable Accommodation

For cases where a reasonable accommodation would prove to be an undue hardship for a program, limited funding is available through the MCSC to provide accommodations for service applicants and AmeriCorps members.   By statute, only Subtitle C competitive State and National Direct AmeriCorps Programs may use these funds.  Programs should seek alternative funding or cost-sharing resources whenever possible.  All AmeriCorps programs must provide reasonable accommodations where required by law regardless of their eligibility for MCSC or outside funding.


The Reasonable Accommodation Process


The reasonable accommodation process must be confidential; no information is to be communicated to anyone who is not directly involved.  Records pertaining to a disclosed disability, related medical information, and the reasonable accommodations made for that disability must be kept separate from the participant’s regular file.


Disclosure of a disability is at the sole discretion of the participant.  If the participant with a disability is willing to discuss his/her disability, they can be a valuable resource for educating fellow participants.  However, they are under no obligation to do so. 


The issue of confidentiality is particularly important when handling questions by other program participants or staff.  While they may question accommodations received by another participant, program directors and other supervisory personnel are prohibited from discussing any information that addresses the accommodated individual’s disability or need for reasonable accommodation.  The best way to prevent conflicts around the issue of reasonable accommodation is to provide disability awareness training and to educate all participants as to your organization’s responsibility to hold all personnel matters confidential.  As part of that training, participants should be informed that reasonable accommodations are available to any qualifying participant.


Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation

To request an accommodation, an applicant or participant must let the employer know that s/he needs a service-related adjustment or change for a reason related to a disability.  To request accommodation, an individual may use plain English and need not mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.”  The request does not need to be in writing.


Reasonable Documentation

When the disability and/or need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask an individual for reasonable documentation about his/her disability and functional limitations. 


Reasonable documentation means that the employer may require only the documentation that is needed to establish that a person has an ADA-covered disability and the disability necessitates a reasonable accommodation.  Participants are not required to repeatedly provide medical information about an ongoing condition.


The Interactive Accommodation Process

Once an accommodation has been requested, the participant or applicant and the program director or their designee should engage in an informal process to clarify the individual’s needs and possible accommodations.  The nature of this discussion will vary.  In some instances both the disability and the type of accommodation required will be obvious.  In other situations, the program director may need to ask questions concerning the nature of the disability and the individual’s functional limitations in order to identify an effective accommodation.  While the individual with a disability does not have to be able to specify the precise accommodation, s/he does need to describe the problems posed by the workplace barrier.


Types of Reasonable Accommodation

There are as many types of accommodations as there are people who need them.  Flexible work schedules, providing print material in alternate formats (large print, Braille, on tape, etc.), purchasing adaptive equipment, or rearranging an office environment are just a few examples of reasonable accommodations.  The need for and appropriateness of any type of accommodation must be made on a case-by-case basis.  Each individual, regardless of disability, will have unique abilities and needs. 


One of the best resources for determining the appropriate accommodation can be the participant with the disability.  However, it is important to be aware that people have varying levels of experience and success with requesting and receiving accommodations.  It is important that the process remain as positive, open, and interactive as possible.


Providing the Accommodation

As long as it is effective, the program may choose the accommodation that is easiest to provide, is least expensive, or is otherwise less burdensome.  While the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration, the program is not obligated to provide the preferred accommodation.  The participant has the right to refuse the offered accommodation but if they do so and cannot perform the essential functions of their position, they may not be covered under the ADA.


Reasonable accommodations should be provided without delay.  Participants serve for a limited amount of time and delays in implementing accommodations could keep the participant from having a successful service experience.


Reasonable Accommodation as an Ongoing Process

Once an accommodation has been implemented, it is important to monitor the success and continued appropriateness of the chosen accommodation.  People and situations change and it is important to recognize that reasonable accommodation is a process and not a one-time fix. 


Assessment of Service Performance

A person with a disability is not exempt from job standards and discipline but needs to be assessed in the framework of their eligibility for coverage under the ADA and the accommodations that have been provided. Keep in touch with the participant to ensure that the accommodation is enabling them to serve effectively and accomplish their goals.