Discussing accommodations or other needs with your employer

conversation between two woman; one woman has her back to the camera

Two years ago, I found myself in a medical crisis. A car accident resulted in multiple, ongoing symptoms that made doing my job incredibly difficult. But I’m lucky to have a great employer. I worked with supervisors to alter my schedule, reduce my hours, and build in more breaks from the computer.

headshot of April McHugh
Career Counselor Apri McHugh

It took time, effort, and many conversations to get my needs met while continuing to fulfill my job duties. Whether you have a disability or need accommodations for other reasons, be informed and ready to talk to your employer with these tips.

Know the ADA. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that took effect in 1992. It forbids employers from discriminating against applicants or employees on the basis of disability, defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Under the ADA, private companies with more than 15 employees, state and local government employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management committees are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to people who disclose a disability. Learn more at ada.gov.

Meet JAN. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a leading source of free, expert, confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. Visit askjan.org to get one-on-one assistance. The site has an ADA library and a place to quickly find information about accommodation options.

Make your request. Practically speaking, it’s better to ask your supervisor for an accommodation before your job performance suffers. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you only have to let your employer know that you need an adjustment at work for a reason related to a medical condition. For example, you can tell your employer: “I’m having trouble getting to work at my scheduled time because of medical treatments,” or “I need six weeks off to get treatment for a health issue.”

Under the ADA, an accommodation is any change in the work environment or the way things are done that enables a person with a disability to have equal employment opportunities. Examples of “reasonable” accommodations under the ADA may include making existing facilities accessible, job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, providing qualified readers or interpreters, or medical leave. Under the law, you cannot request eliminating an essential function of the job, lowering production standards or providing personal use items if they are also needed off the job.

I coach clients on coming up with an accommodation proposal to share with employers. These requests don’t have to be in writing, but it can be useful to have a paper trail.

Disclose, or not. For various reasons, you may want to limit the medical information you give your employer. However, under the ADA, employers have the right to request this information when an employee requests an accommodation. Your choice to disclose depends on your disability, your job and supervisor, your personality, and more. Talk to you human resources department if you need additional guidance on policies and procedures.

Remember, you don’t have to have a disability to request a different way to work. It just may not be covered by law and therefore leans more on your employer’s willingness to be flexible. Just emphasize to your employer that by getting your needs met, you will be better able to help reach the organization’s goals.

April McHugh is a career and educational counselor at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. She can be reached at april.mchugh@wisc.edu or 608-262-2683.