Reasonable Accommodations in Employment

Laws protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in employment

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) help people with disabilities enjoy equal opportunity in employment.  These laws require employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants with disabilities and employees with disabilities, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.  The ADA applies to businesses that employee fifteen (15) or more people, as well as state and local governments.  The Rehabilitation Act applies when the employer is the Federal government or the employer receives Federal financial assistance or has a contract with the Federal government.  The WLAD applies to employers who have at least eight (8) employees.  For more information about each of these laws, see Disability Rights Washington’s Information Sheet called “Employment Discrimination – Federal and Washington State Laws”.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is the modification or adjustment of the job application process, interviewing process, or employment for a qualified person with a disability.  To qualify for a reasonable accommodation, the employer must know about the disability or it must be shown to exist through an interactive process.  Additionally, the disability must have a substantially limiting effect.  For more information on this requirement, see Disability Rights Washington’s information sheet called “Employment Discrimination – Federal and Washington State Laws.”

Some examples of a reasonable accommodation include:

  • making existing facilities accessible for individuals with disabilities;
  • job restructuring to modified or part-time schedules;
  • modifications of equipment; and
  • provision of readers or interpreters.  

What is an undue hardship?

Employers do not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it causes an undue hardship.  An undue hardship could be a significant difficulty or expense to make an accommodation.  In determining whether the accommodation would be considered an undue hardship, the employer’s size, the cost of the accommodation and the resources that the employer has available including potential tax advantages and grants are taken into consideration.

Can a person with a disability who is applying for a job get an accommodation? 

Applicants, just like employees, are entitled to reasonable accommodations.  The applicant must be “qualified” for the position.  This means that the applicant must satisfy the skills, experience, education, and other job related requirements for the position and with the accommodation would be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

What are essential functions?

Essential functions are the basic job duties of the employment position.  For example, something is an essential job function if based on the employer’s judgment:

  • it is the reason why the position exists;
  • the position is a highly specialized position; or
  • it is legitimately included in the written job descriptions for the position.

Who is responsible for arranging reasonable accommodations?

Both the individual with a disability and the employer are responsible for arranging reasonable accommodations.  Employers are required to inform employees and applicants about their right to request accommodations.  This is usually done by a poster in the workplace and/or information in the employee handbook.  Employees and applicants need to inform the employer of their need for a reasonable accommodation, and the request can be in plain English, and does not need to use the words “reasonable accommodation.”  An advocate can request an accommodation for the employee or applicant.  An employer is not required to provide an accommodation if the employer does not know that the disability exists. 

If an employer sees a person’s disability, is the employer supposed to offer an accommodation?

After the employer is on notice that a person has a disability, the employer may need to initiate the process to find a reasonable accommodation for the employee.  An employee can follow this step-by-step process to notify the employer about a disability and to request a reasonable accommodation. 

  1. Tell the employer that accommodations are needed for a disability recognized by the Rehabilitation Act, ADA, WLAD, and/or local laws; and
  2. discuss accommodation options with the employer.

Does a person need to request an accommodation in writing? 

An accommodation request does not have to be in writing.  However, some employers ask for proof of a disability and a written reasonable accommodation request.  This information sheet has a sample letter attached as an example for how to request a reasonable accommodation from a current employer.

What does a person need to tell an employer about his or her disability? 

A person does not have to tell their employer anything about his or her disability unless that disability interferes with his or her ability to perform the essential functions of the job and they are seeking a reasonable accommodation as a solution.  When a person seeks a reasonable accommodation, that person should engage in a conversation with the employer about their disability and potential reasonable accommodations. 

The ADA and WLAD allows an employer to request medical documentation before providing a person with a disability with a reasonable accommodation when the disability or need for the accommodation is not obvious. 

Can an employer ask applicants and employees to undergo a medical examination or ask applicants about disabilities?

Prior to employment and during job interviews employers are not allowed to ask applicants about the nature or severity of a disability.  During a job interview, employers are allowed to ask if a person can perform job-related functions.  After an employer offers a person a job, the employer can make a job offer conditional on a medical examination, but only if all entering employees undergo the medical exam, regardless of disability, and the medical exam is job-related and consistent with business necessity.  The information obtained from the medical exam must be maintained in separate medical files and must be treated as confidential.  

After a person has started the job, the employer can only ask the employee to undergo medical examination if it is “consistent with business necessity.”  Being consistent with business necessity means that the employer has a reasonable belief that an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition or the employee poses a direct threat due to a medical condition.  

What if a person knows he or she needs accommodations, but does not know what accommodations are available?

There are databases and handouts with many accommodation ideas available through the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Job Accommodation Network
Voice: 800-526-7234
TTY: 877-781-9403

Can an employer give a different accommodation than the one requested by the person with the disability?

An employer is required to give a reasonable accommodation.  This means that it does not necessarily have to be the accommodation that the employee would like the most.  If an employer gives a reasonable accommodation and the employee does not like it, the employee does not have to accept it.  However, if the employee does not accept a reasonable accommodation and cannot perform the essential job functions of the position, the individual will not be considered qualified for the position.  If the accommodation offered would not have sufficiently assisted the employee, then the employer and employee need to discuss other potential reasonable accommodations.  It is always good for a person with a disability to keep an open dialogue with an employer about possible reasonable accommodations.     

What happens if an employer and employee cannot agree upon an accommodation or they do agree on a reasonable accommodation, but some time passes and the employer does not provide it?

If possible, an employer and employee should work out the dispute informally.  If the employer continues to refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation, the individual with the disability may want to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or the Washington State Human Rights Commission (WSHRC).  Employees should be careful because strict time frames exist during which an employee must file a complaint, or else they lose the right to do so.  For more information on how to file a complaint see Disability Rights Washington’s Information Sheet called “Employment Discrimination – Federal and Washington State Laws.”

Information from other organizations

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Federal Office Building
909 First Avenue, Suite 400
Seattle, WA 98104
Voice:  800-669-4000
TTY:  206-220-6882

Washington State Human Rights Commission
Olympia Headquarters Office
711 S. Capitol Way, Suite 402
Olympia, WA 98504-2490
Voice: 800-233-3247
TTY: 800-300-7525

U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section –NYA
Washington, D.C. 20530
Voice/TTY: 202-514-0301

Sample Letter for Reasonable Accommodations

Directions to the writer:

  1. Employees should be sure to send this letter to the right person such as an immediate supervisor or ADA coordinator. 
  2. Employees are not required by law to make a reasonable accommodations request in writing.  Requests can be made orally.
  3. When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation in writing, the employee should keep a copy.

Employer’s Address      

Date of Letter


Dear                         :

I work as a _______(fill in job) for _______(fill in company or department). I am writing to formally request a reasonable accommodation for my disability under ______ (choose one or both: “federal” and/or “state”) laws governing reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities.  Although I am otherwise qualified for my position, I am limited in my ability to ______ (state type of task affected by disability, for example, “lift heavy objects”; “take the regularly scheduled bus”; “use an auditory telephone”; “type quickly”).  Therefore, I will need accommodations in order to ______ (state job task for which you need accommodation, for example “move the encyclopedias”; “arrive at work by 8am”; “answer telephone calls”; “type memos”). 

From my experience, I know that _____ (state possible solution, for example, “obtaining a dolly”; “telecommuting from home”; “obtaining a TTY machine”; “being allotted more time for typed projects”) would be a sufficient accommodation.  However, I am open to other solutions that you may suggest.  I also would be willing to meet with you to discuss other options.

(Omit the following paragraph if the request you make costs nothing.)  As you probably know, you may be eligible for tax deductions or tax credits for expenses incurred in providing reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities.  For more information about your eligibility for tax credits, you can contact the Northwest ADA Center at 800-949-4232 or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at 800-669-4000.

If you would like medical verification of my disability, I can provide you with the appropriate documents upon your request. (Alternatively, “I have attached medical documentation verifying my disability.”)

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I would appreciate a response to this letter within one week so that I can be as efficient in my job as possible.  I look forward to cooperating with you to find an effective and economical solution.

Thank you,

Employee’s Signed and Printed Name
Employee’s Mailing Address and Phone Number

The following federal funding partners shared in the cost of producing this material: the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, AIDD (G-1101WAPA48); the Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA (SMX539700Q); and the Rehabilitation Services Administration, RSA (H240A140048). These contents are the sole responsibility of Disability Rights Washington and do not necessarily represent the official views of AIDD, SAMHSA or RSA.

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