What Are Reasonable Accommodations?
Most employees and students need some adjustments to help them perform at their best. A parent who works full-time needs a day off to get a sick child from school, or an adult student needs an extension on a term paper because his job requires him to make an unscheduled trip out of town. Both employee and student have the necessary skills to do what’s required if these adjustments are made.
For people with a disability, such changes are often critical to their success. Although some of the adjustments might be different from those that work for other people, they accomplish the same goal — allowing qualified employees or students to do the best job they can. These strategies are often just good business or educational practices. Reasonable accommodations are those adjustments within a work or school site that allow an otherwise qualified employee or student with a disability to perform the tasks required.
Employers and educators are not expected to provide opportunities to those who cannot do what is necessary. The laws do not require them to lower the standards of performance or change the qualifications needed to gain entry into a job or school program. What they are expected to do is be flexible about the way the work gets done.
Employers and educators are required to provide reasonable accommodations under two separate laws: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued Enforcement Guidance on the ADA and Psychiatric Disability. In What laws protect someone with a psychiatric disability? You can find out more about these laws and definitions of the technical terms.
Reasonable Accommodations for People with Psychiatric Disability
It’s usually easy to tell what kind of accommodation someone with a physical disability needs. Someone who uses a wheelchair needs a higher desk. Someone with visual problems needs to receive all written material in large print. But since mental illness is often invisible, it can be hard to tell what will help a person with a psychiatric disability do his or her job better.
The first step in identifying the accommodations you need is to know the demands of your job or coursework. The second step is to figure out your “functional limitations” — that is, how your disability may make it hard for you to meet those demands. For example, your symptoms or the side effects of your medication may cause problems with memory, concentration, relating to others, managing or experiencing emotions, or organizing and managing your time. For more detailed definitions and examples of functional limitations, go to How does mental illness affect work? Or How does mental illness affect school?
Effective accommodations include changes in schedules, instructions, job tasks or other procedures, and ways the instructor interacts with you. Not all of these accommodations will work for everyone; each situation should be taken on an individual basis. Many people with psychiatric disabilities may not need accommodations of any kind.
Mental Illness and Psychiatric Disability
“Mental illness” describes a variety of psychiatric and emotional problems that vary in intensity and duration, and may recur from time to time. Mental illnesses become disabling when they interfere significantly with a person’s ability to work, learn, think, care for oneself, or interact with others. Mental illness is not mental retardation or brain injury. Disclosing Your Disability to an Employer gives examples of common conditions, “plain English” examples of terms used to describe mental illness, and links to other resources for more information.
Benefits of Reasonable Accommodations
In our lifetimes, one in four of us will know someone who has experienced a mental illness – a family member, friend, neighbor, employee, manager, student, or teacher. Many talented people have made significant contributions despite having had a mental illness: President Abraham Lincoln, writer Ernest Hemingway, actress Patty Duke, Senator Thomas Eagleton, artist Vincent Van Gogh, scientist Isaac Newton, athlete Lionel Aldridge, and businessman Ted Turner, to name a few, have accomplished many things in spite of having a mental illness.
Reasonable accommodations may help you return to work or school from disability or medical leave sooner. Costs for treatment of mental illness may be reduced the sooner one returns to a productive role, and many people want to become productive again. For employers, the costs for providing accommodations are fairly inexpensive – most cost less than $500, and for people with psychiatric disabilities, the cost is usually less than $100. In fact, the Job Accommodation Network says that companies report an average return of $28.69 in benefits for every dollar invested in making an accommodation.
Often, these adjustments — flexible schedules, time off for medical appointments, or changes in communication, feedback and/or supervision — are not much different from the changes available to any employee or student. They can benefit everyone, not just the employee with a disability.
Sources : Job Accommodation Network; National Alliance for the Mentally Ill; President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Mental Illness; Zuckerman, Debenham & Moore, (1993) The ADA and People with Mental Illness: A Resource Manual for Employers.
Note: The information contained in these pages is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice regarding their particular situations.