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How to Navigate the ADA Interactive Process: An Employer’s Guide

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) comes into play when a disability or medical condition interferes with an employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of their job. In most cases, the first step is to engage in the ADA interactive process.

But the ADA interactive process isn’t a standard set of procedures dictated by your human resources department. It’s more of a dialogue in which both employer and employee work together in good faith to find an effective accommodation.

Let’s take a look at the ADA interactive process, including how to initiate it, and what types of reasonable accommodation might be required.

What Is the ADA Interactive Process?

The ADA interactive process is a set of procedures that employers must follow any time an employee requests an accommodation, or when an employee’s disability or medical condition limits their capacity to perform their usual job duties.

Although the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) oversees the application of the ADA, the specifics are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Both parties must make good faith efforts to find an appropriate accommodation that allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.

If the requested accommodation would create undue hardship for the employer, they should work with the employee to find other possible accommodations.

Who Initiates the ADA Interactive Process?

In some cases, the employee will make a request for a specific accommodation that’s related to a known disability or medical condition. But in other cases, the request may be vague or unspecific, and they may not use the letters “ADA” at all.

Under U.S. employment law, an employee doesn’t have to use specific language to request an accommodation. It’s up to the employer to determine whether or not the case is covered by the ADA and to initiate the ADA interactive process.

For example, if you suspect that an employee’s poor work performance is related to a disability or medical issue, ask if there’s anything you can do to help.

If the requested accommodation is reasonable and appropriate, it may not require a lengthy interactive process, but the employer should still document the outcome.

5 Steps to the ADA Interactive Process

ADA interactive process: employee sitting in a wheelchair while talking to his colleague

The ADA interactive process isn’t a rigid set of guidelines, so the number of steps in the process may vary depending on the complexity of the case. As a general rule, you can expect to follow these five steps for each case that falls under ADA requirements.

1. Request relevant medical information.

The first step in the ADA interactive process is to determine whether there is, in fact, a condition that meets the definition of a disability under the ADA.

Employers aren’t allowed to ask invasive medical questions or request the employee’s full medical history. They should only ask for the minimum amount of information they need to understand what type of impairment the employee is experiencing.

This could take the form of medical documentation from their health care provider that confirms that the employee needs an accommodation — without going into detail about their specific medical condition or disability.

2. Review the job description.

The ADA interactive process is intended for employees who are unable to perform the essential functions of the job — not marginal responsibilities. If an employee’s essential job duties involve administrative work, but they occasionally help move boxes around the office, then moving boxes is only a marginal function.

In this case, the employer may be required to provide accommodation options for the administrative work, but not for the marginal tasks.

Ensuring that the employee’s job description aligns with their actual job duties is key to determining what type of accommodation you’re required to provide.

3. Identify possible accommodations.

Next, the employer and employee should work together to brainstorm accommodations that might meet the employee’s needs. Both parties can suggest accommodation ideas and express their preferences.

The employer may have provided similar accommodations in the past, and may already have the resources in place to provide them.

If not, they can seek input from the employee’s medical provider or from an organization like JAN, the Job Accommodation Network.

4. Select an accommodation.

After both parties have reviewed and discussed the possible accommodations, it’s up to the employer to choose which one they want to try out first.

They should take the employee’s preferences into account, but they’re free to choose the one that’s the least expensive or least onerous to implement.

If the employer believes that all of the proposed accommodations would present undue hardship, they should seek legal advice before continuing.

5. Follow up with the employee.

The ADA interactive process should be an ongoing discussion that doesn’t end as soon as an accommodation has been implemented. In fact, it’s entirely permissible to try out multiple accommodations, or to start with one and then switch to another.

The employer should check in with the employee to see whether the accommodation is effective, and monitor its overall impact on the work environment.

When modifying an accommodation, be sure to document these changes to ensure that you’re still meeting your obligations under employment law.

What Is an Appropriate Reasonable Accommodation?

Whether or not an accommodation is considered reasonable depends on the specific circumstances, such as the job description, the size of your company, the cost of the accommodation, and whether you have the financial resources to implement it.

Some common accommodations include:

  • Improving accessibility at the job location. If the employee’s disability requires them to use a wheelchair, then it may be appropriate for the employer to install a wheelchair ramp or an ADA-accessible bathroom.
  • Modifying work equipment. If an employee’s vision is impaired, then supplying suitable computer equipment or software, such as a screen reader, may allow them to perform their duties more effectively.
  • Reassignment. In some cases, essential functions of the job could be assigned to a different employee, or adjusted to meet the disabled employee’s needs.
  • Changing work schedules. Some types of disabilities may require a change to the employee’s work routine. They may benefit from a reduced work schedule, such as switching from full-time work to part-time employment.

Other possible accommodations may include providing a qualified reader or interpreter to help employees with auditory or speech disabilities.

Remember, not all disabilities are visible, and an employee may be eligible for an ADA accommodation for both physical and mental health needs.

Can Employees Request a Leave of Absence Under FMLA?

Some disabilities or chronic conditions may fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of leave per year. This law covers chronic health conditions, sudden injuries, and more.

In some cases, a leave of absence may be considered a reasonable accommodation, even if the employee has used up their FMLA leave or isn’t eligible for FMLA.

The same ADA interactive process should apply in order to determine whether leave is a reasonable accommodation or if another option is more appropriate. An employee might request leave for circumstances related to their disability, such as:

  • Training a service animal
  • Recovering from surgery
  • Switching to new medication

The employee can request intermittent leave, but they shouldn’t request an open-ended leave period, which might present an undue hardship on the employer.

The employer is required to provide “equal access to leave” under the same policy they use for other employees, including paid leave if it’s available. However, employees with a disability may be entitled to additional unpaid leave beyond the maximum.

Streamline the ADA Interactive Process With Automation

Senior communicating using sign language while having a video call

The ADA interactive process can help employers find a reasonable accommodation that allows an employee with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their job. Even if the solution seems obvious, it’s important to follow a clear and consistent process to meet your obligations under employment law.

Pulpstream makes it easy to navigate the ADA interactive process with our no-code HR management platform. You can create a standardized workflow for your team to follow, and even allow employees to self-service their accommodation requests online.

Request a demo today to find out more!