What are Reasonable Accommodations?


Introduction and What You’ll Find on this Web Site


At some point in time, most employees or students need some adjustment in work or school that helps them to 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 required 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 who have 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 result – allowing a qualified employee or student 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.

It is important that employers and educators know that they are not expected to provide opportunities to those who cannot do what is necessary. The laws do not require anyone to lower the standards of performance or change the qualifications needed to gain entry into a job or school program. What is expected are changes in the ways that those standards are met.

Employers and educators are required to provide reasonable accommodations under 2 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 require that reasonable accommodations be provided you can read a summary of this Guidance and find out more about these laws and definitions of the technical terms.

Reasonable Accommodations for People with Psychiatric Disability

It is sometimes easier to identify the changes that will help someone with a physical or visible disability, such as raising the height of a desk for someone who uses a wheelchair, or providing written information in large print for someone with visual problems. However, many people are unaware of the types of accommodations that work for people with mental illness, which can be a more hidden condition.

Knowing the things that the person has trouble doing that are due to the disability (known as the functional limitations) and the demands of the job or school program helps to identify accommodations for that person. The symptoms of the illnesses and the medications may cause problems with memory, concentration, relating to others, managing or experiencing emotions, organizing and managing time and other areas. Go to How does mental illness interfere with functioning on the job or How does mental illness interfere with functioning in school for descriptions and examples of functional limitations that are due to psychiatric disability.

The accommodations that have been found to be effective include changes in schedules, instructions, job tasks or other procedures and ways of interacting with the employee or student. Not all of these accommodations will work for everyone; each situation should be taken on an individual basis. It is also important to know that many people with psychiatric disabilities may not need accommodations of any kind.

What accommodations work on the job or What accommodations work in school present examples of the types of accommodations that are effective for people with psychiatric disabilities, and include case illustrations of specific situations in which accommodations have been used. Employment scenarios and educational scenarios describe situations that you might experience with answers about what you could do.

Mental Illness and Psychiatric Disability

Mental illness is a term that 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. What is psychiatric disability and mental illness describes definitions and examples of common diagnoses, “ English” examples of terms used to describe mental illness, and links to other resources for more information.

The process of developing and implementing accommodations

Accommodations should be determined on a case-by-case basis, but there are procedures that can be used as a guide. Starting with a disclosure of disability or a request for an accommodation, open a dialogue with the person about the limitations experienced and brainstorm possible accommodations. How-to Tips for Employers and How-to Tips for Educators provide practical advice on how to develop accommodations and other related issues.

Why do I need to know about reasonable accommodations for people who have psychiatric disabilities?

In our lifetime, 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 and have had a mental illness. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill has identified some of these people, including 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. People who have experienced a mental illness are capable of working and learning just as employees or students who do not have disabilities.

Implementing reasonable accommodations may help employees or students return to work or school from disability or medical leave sooner. This cuts down on costs due to lost productivity. Costs for treatment of mental illness may be reduced the sooner one returns to a productive role as well. And 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 such as flexible schedules, time off for medical appointments, or changes in communication, feedback and/or supervision are not much different from the changes one makes for any employee or student. Changes made in work or school policies or procedures, such as flex time, may benefit everyone, not just the employee with a disability.

There are a number of resources out there to provide information and technical assistance. Consult the extensive lists of readings (What can I read for more information for Employers and What can I read for more information for Educators) located on this Web site. Or go to our frequently asked questions section (FAQs from Employers and FAQs from Educators)

Give a talented person who experiences a mental illness an opportunity to live, learn and work like all of us do. It does make good sense.

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.