Reasonable accommodations are the way that persons with disabilities are able to enjoy the same rights to work as any other individual. They are the bridge between what the person with a disability can do and what they could do on equal footing with all other persons. The accommodation levels the playing field so that all persons have the same opportunities regardless of their disability.
Disabilities are different from virtually all other kinds of immutable characteristics. An employee’s race is irrelevant to their ability to perform a job. But, a disability is. In most cases of discrimination, the issue is that one employee is being treated worse than another. Different rules for different people feels wrong, and often is.
But when it comes to disabilities, different rules are required. If an employee needs to have a ramp to access the office, then the employer is responsible for ensuring that he has that access. The rules are changed for the person with the disability to accommodate that disability.
The ADA Requires Equal Opportunity, not Equal Treatment in all Respects
The law, including the ADA, is there to make sure that these changes are made. It is illegal for an employer not to make changes and exceptions to its rules if that is what an employee needs in order to perform the job successfully with a disability.
Many employers are accustomed to rules and expectations for employees being applied equally. In general, this is a good thing. But for persons with disabilities, it can be a nightmare. In the federal employment context, to take one example, an employee who cannot come to work because of a disability may be entitled to telework. If the employer has a ‘no telework’ policy, then the ADA requires that telework policy to be modified or an exception granted for an employee who has a disability-related need.
Accommodations Bridge the Gap
The point of the ADA and reasonable accommodations is to bridge the gap between what the employee with a disability is able to do on her own and what she could do. I think the bridge metaphor is the most helpful in understanding accommodations. If the bridge does not get all the way there, then it is insufficient. By the same token, if you can’t bridge the gap no matter what happens, then there is no reason to have a bridge.
That means that if an employer provides an accommodation that leaves the employee still at a disadvantage, then it is not “effective.” On the other hand, there may be no “effective” accommodations.
This isn’t a complex legal analysis, but it’s a good start in thinking about how disability accommodations work. It’s not about treating everyone the same, it’s about providing the same opportunities. In the disability context, those are different things. The disabled employee is entitled to a ‘bridge’ if that would be effective. To be effective, the accommodation must bridge to provide an equal opportunity for employment.