Providing effective accommodations for applicants and employees with disabilities can benefit federal contractors in many ways. First, there is compliance with legal requirements; Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal contractors to provide reasonable accommodations. Then there are the business reasons; providing accommodations produces low cost, high impact benefits such as retention of valued employees, decreased workers’ compensation costs, and increased productivity.
Coming up with effective accommodations does not have to be difficult, but it does help to have formal, written procedures. While written procedures are not required under Section 503, there are several reasons why having written procedures is a best practice. First, if supervisors, managers, and HR professionals have formal procedures to refer to, they are more likely to handle accommodation requests properly and consistently. Second, written procedures that are shared with applicants and employees help these individuals know how to request an accommodation and what to expect after they make a request. Finally, written procedures can help document a contractor’s good faith effort to comply with Section 503.
If you want to develop or enhance your written accommodation procedures, there are resources available to help you. One resource is Appendix B of the Section 503 regulations, which contains 14 excellent suggestions to help you get started. In addition, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) recently released a free, online Accommodation Toolkit. The following guidance for developing written procedures includes excerpts from Appendix B along with relevant information and links to the JAN Toolkit:
Appendix B: The contractor should designate an official to be responsible for the implementation of the reasonable accommodation procedures. The responsible official should have the authority, resources, support, and access to top management that is needed to ensure the effective implementation of the reasonable accommodation procedures. The name, title/office, and contact information of the official should be included in the reasonable accommodation procedures.
JAN Toolkit: Having a single point of contact for accommodations is a good way to help ensure a good faith interactive process occurs and that accommodations are effectively implemented. When no one is responsible, an employee’s request may get passed around and then languish on someone’s desk until it is too late and a complaint is filed. For federal contractors who do not currently have a designated official, the Toolkit offers sample job descriptions outlining useful qualifications and job duties. In addition, the Toolkit provides six steps – What to Do First – when developing a single point of contact to process accommodation requests.
Appendix B: The contractor’s reasonable accommodation procedures should contain a description of the steps the contractor takes when processing a reasonable accommodation request. If specific information must be provided, the description should identify this information. The description should also indicate that the contractor may initiate an interactive process with the accommodation requester.
JAN Toolkit: The Toolkit provides a sample policy and process, examples from inclusive companies, and an interactive process flowchart. JAN also offers an overview of the interactive process and useful tips in a Just-in-Time training module and publication. In addition, the Toolkit contains training videos for managing the interactive dialogue.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should specify that a request for reasonable accommodation may be oral or written and should explain that there are no required “magic words” that must be used to request an accommodation. The procedures should also state that requests for reasonable accommodation may be made by an applicant, employee, or third party.
JAN Toolkit: Remember that you should start processing an accommodation request immediately, even if the initial request is oral. If you choose to follow up with a written request, the Toolkit offers a sample Reasonable Accommodation Request Form for Employers and a sample Employee Form for Requesting an Accommodation. Additional forms for documenting each stage of the interactive process are also available in the Toolkit.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should identify to whom an employee (or a third party) must submit an accommodation request. At a minimum, this should include any supervisor or management official in the employee’s chain of command and the official responsible for processing accommodation requests.
JAN Toolkit: This suggestion is very important. Research by Cornell University shows that employees tend to initiate an accommodation request with their direct supervisor even when someone else is assigned to process requests. Allowing managers to receive accommodation requests means you are less likely to miss a request.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should provide that in instances of a recurring need for an accommodation (e.g., a hearing impaired employee’s need for a sign language interpreter for meetings) the requester will not be required to repeatedly submit or renew their request for accommodation each time the accommodation is needed. In the absence of a reasonable belief that the individual’s recurring need for the accommodation has changed, requiring the repeated submission of a request for the accommodation could be considered harassment.
JAN Toolkit: Along the same lines, employers often think they must get new medical documentation every time an employee makes a new accommodation request, but that is not the case. Employers are not allowed to ask for medical documentation if the disability or need for accommodation are obvious or already documented. When an accommodation is reoccurring or a new request is received from an employee who is already receiving accommodations, the first step should be to look at the existing documentation and determine whether sufficient information is already available.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should explain when medical documentation in support of a request for reasonable accommodation may be required. The procedures should explain that any request for medical documentation must be limited to documentation of the individual’s disability and the functional limitations for which reasonable accommodation is sought.
JAN Toolkit: For a summary of what medical documentation is allowed and a sample form, see: Medical Inquiry in Response to an Accommodation Request.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should specify that written confirmation of the receipt of a request for reasonable accommodation will be provided to the requester, either by letter or email. The written confirmation should include the date the accommodation request was received, and be signed by the authorized decision-maker or his or her designee.
JAN Toolkit: Many of the suggestions in Appendix B involve communication with the employee who requests accommodation. In our experience, communicating is key to a successful accommodation process. Employees who do not know what is happening with their requests often think the worst – that their employer will not provide an accommodation and that they might lose their job. If an organization detects that employees have low levels of confidence and competence in communicating with people with disabilities, the Toolkit provides disability awareness training modules.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should state that requests for accommodation will be processed as expeditiously as possible. Oral requests for reasonable accommodation should be considered received on the date they are initially made, even if the contractor has a reasonable accommodation request form that has not been completed. Requests for reasonable accommodation must be processed within a reasonable period of time, which will depend upon the specific circumstances. However, in general, if supporting medical documentation is not needed, that timeframe should not be longer than 5 to 10 business days. If supporting medical documentation is needed, or if special equipment must be ordered, that timeframe should not exceed 30 calendar days, unless there are extenuating circumstances beyond the control of the contractor. The procedures should explain what constitutes extenuating circumstances.
JAN Toolkit: It can be useful to have a method for tracking the progress and outcome of the accommodation request as a way of keeping the process moving quickly. The Toolkit offers sample accommodation program metrics and accommodation tracking tools.
Appendix B: If the contractor’s processing of an accommodation request will exceed established timeframes, written notice should be provided to the requester. The notice should include the reason(s) for the delay and a projected date of response. The notice should also be dated and signed by the authorized decision-maker.
JAN Toolkit: This is another example of when communication is important. If an employee knows there is a valid reason for a delay in processing his accommodation request, he is much more likely to feel like he is being treated fairly. In addition to notifying an employee of a delay, a good practice is to consider providing a temporary accommodation. See: Providing Temporary or Trial Accommodation Solutions.
Appendix B: The reasonable accommodation procedures should include procedures to ensure that all applicants, including those using the contractor’s online or other electronic application system, are made aware of the contractor’s reasonable accommodation obligation and are invited to request any reasonable accommodation needed to participate fully in the application process. All applicants should also be provided with contact information for contractor staff able to assist the applicant in making a request for accommodation. The contractor’s procedures should provide that reasonable accommodation requests by or on behalf of an applicant are processed expeditiously, using timeframes tailored to the application process.
JAN Toolkit: JAN provides general information about accommodating applicants. The Toolkit also contains more specific information developed for managers. In addition, JAN provides a self-assessment guide to check the accessibility of an applicant tracking system.
Appendix B: The contractor’s reasonable accommodation procedures should specify that any denial or refusal to provide a requested reasonable accommodation will be provided in writing. The written denial should include the reason for the denial and be dated and signed by the authorized decision-maker or his or her designee. If the contractor provides an internal appeal or reconsideration process, the written denial should inform the requester about this process.
JAN Toolkit: The Toolkit provides a sample Denial Form for this purpose. A best practice is not to allow managers to deny accommodations. While they may grant accommodations requests, seldom do managers have the expertise to manage a denial. Another best practice is for a contractor to have an appeals process; the Toolkit includes a sample Appeals Form.
Appendix B: The contractor’s reasonable accommodation procedures should indicate that all requests for reasonable accommodation, related documentation, and any medical or disability-related information provided to the contractor will be treated as confidential medical records and maintained in a separate medical file.
JAN Toolkit: The Toolkit contains cautionary notes about the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
Appendix B: The contractor should disseminate its written reasonable accommodation procedures to all employees. Notice of the reasonable accommodation procedures may be provided by their inclusion in an employee handbook that is disseminated to all employees and/or by email or electronic posting on a company Web page where work-related notices are ordinarily posted. Notice of the reasonable accommodation procedures should be provided to employees who work off-site in the same manner that notice of other work-related matters is ordinarily provided to these employees.
JAN Toolkit: As stated previously, communicating and educating employees is essential to creating a compliant and inclusive workplace.
Appendix B: The contractor should provide annual training for its supervisors and managers regarding the implementation of the reasonable accommodation procedures.
JAN Toolkit: Training your front line supervisors and managers is one of the most important things you can do. As mentioned, the front line often receives the initial accommodation request so they need to at least be trained how to recognize a request and who to notify. The Toolkit provides a sample PowerPoint for training managers and supervisors provided by a company known to be very inclusive of people with disabilities.
If you need more information about developing written accommodation procedures or assistance with any accommodation situations, contact JAN anytime!