Reasonable accommodation in the workplace cartoon concept with four workers seated around a table, three on chairs and one using a wheelchair.
Image: © iracosma/Stock.adobe.com

Reasonable accommodation: What employers need to know

3 Oct 2023

Compliance is mandatory when it comes to DEI for workers with disabilities and extra requirements, says HRLocker’s Crystel Robbins Rynne.

If you work in HR or the offshoot of HR that’s sometimes referred to as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), you will have heard of the term ‘reasonable accommodation’. But if not, we’re here to tell you that it does not refer to inexpensive hotels in convenient locations. It’s actually a term that all employers should know because employers are required by law to make these accommodations for employees if they require them.

Put simply, reasonable accommodation means any modification or adjustment that an employer makes for an employee if the employee has a disability. Making these accommodations means that people with disabilities can work, and it is not a huge ask. A reasonable accommodation is just that – it could be something like providing an autistic worker with their own private working booth or redesigning an office to make it accessible for wheelchair users.

‘The law makes it clear; you cannot decide a disabled person is incapable without thinking about how you could help them with additional needs’

Crystel Robbins Rynne, COO of Irish company HRLocker, is a staunch advocate for DEI policy. She previously wrote a guide published by SiliconRepublic.com for companies on implementing and kickstarting their DEI strategies. She made the point in that piece that businesses don’t have to spend massive money on their DEI strategies – of which reasonable accommodation forms a part – but they can make a difference in simple ways.

Don’t want a court case? Invest in DE&I

Of course, businesses that don’t have any type of reasonable accommodation in place will have to shell out for things like ramps, lifts, accessible bathrooms and more, but it is something they should do, says Rynne. Not just for the sake of their workers but also to prevent possible discrimination cases – which cost a lot of money.

She lists some examples of very costly cases that were taken by workers to the Workplace Relations Committee. A worker with epilepsy who wasn’t allowed to work from home despite suffering life-threatening stress-induced seizures was awarded €30,000. Another worker was awarded €21,100 because their request to switch roles for one with fewer travel requirements was denied. A HIV-positive waiter who had to leave a job after he was forbidden from taking longer breaks between shifts was awarded €3,000.

“Employers never intentionally set out to discriminate against their employees. But it happens a lot,” says Rynne. “Each case is against a workplace that failed to meet its legal obligations to staff living with disabilities or mental health difficulties under the reasonable accommodation provision.”

“These employers all paid a proportionately high price. They spent time and money on expensive and lengthy legal proceedings and potentially suffered irreversible reputational damage. More importantly, their inaction led to unnecessary suffering and harm for the individuals involved.”

Rynne wants to clear up what she calls a common misconception about reasonable accommodation. It doesn’t mean employers are obliged to “recruit, train, promote, or retain people who don’t have the capacities needed to do a particular job”.

“But – and it is a big but – the law makes it clear; you cannot decide a disabled person is incapable without thinking about how you could help them with additional needs. Meaning all organisations must duly engage with the reasonable accommodation process.”

How to handle the process

When it comes down to practicalities, an effective and seamless reasonable accommodation process typically involves four key stages: request, evaluation, implementation and monitoring. “Overcoming the most common obstacles at each step relies on timely, respectful, and confidential two-way communication,” says Rynne. “Meaning you must show a level of stigma-free understanding and non-discriminatory awareness. You must also demonstrate a commitment to your legal obligations throughout.”

“Typical measures include assigning equal weight to visible and hidden disabilities and affirming commitments in written contracts and pro-disability action plans. Taking positive action during recruitment processes and showcasing senior-level role models with disabilities are similarly promoted. As is awareness and equality training for all staff regardless of seniority and, where possible, skilling an appropriate person to act as a disability liaison officer.”

If an employer is really struggling to accommodate workers with disabilities under its DEI strategy, the law allows for concessions under what is termed ‘disproportionate burden’. This clause means that if implementing particular accommodation measures would cause your organisation significant hardship, it is unreasonable to expect you to provide them, says Rynne. The financial cost, time burden, impacts on productivity and the size and resources available to your business are all considered.

However, you cannot claim this clause without first exploring possible alternatives. “For instance, if you can’t afford to make permanent structural alterations to accommodate wheelchair users, you could apply for any available public funding or local enterprise grants. Failing that, you could find a cheaper, more workable option, like tech-enabled solutions.”

Consider assistive tech

These tech-enabled tools are referred to as ‘assistive technologies’. According to Rynne, it is pretty “run-of-the-mill”. Assistive tech refers to “anything that helps anyone overcome accessibility issues”. That includes health-related interventions like walking sticks, prescription eyewear and hearing aids. It also includes workplace assistive technologies like video conferencing and cloud computing. Similarly, things like screen readers, voice-activated programmes and adapted hardware all count, too.

“Assistive technology is the most commonly requested workplace accommodation and an essential tool that enables people with disabilities to participate in employment,” says Rynne. She recommends that employers that need guidance in acquiring this tech should consult organisations like Enable Ireland which assists companies through their workplace assessment service.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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