Navigating the Interactive Process

Published October 11, 2022

Entities covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are required to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The EEOC recommends employers adopt an interactive process to help determine effective, reasonable accommodations.

A flexible, interactive process is particularly helpful when effective accommodation is not obvious. According to the EEOC recommendations, employers should incorporate the following into their employment program and interactive processes:

  • Analyze the job in question and identify its core functions and purpose.
  • Engage the person requesting an accommodation to understand job-related needs and how a reasonable accommodation can help overcome barriers.
  • Identify possible accommodations in consultation with the person requesting accommodation and evaluate their relative effectiveness.
  • Give consideration to the individual’s preference and make a decision on the appropriate accommodation that is most effective.

Tip sheet for employers

Here is a tip sheet that will help employers effectively engage employees throughout the interactive process.

Analyze a job's essential functions and purpose

One of the first questions employers should ask themselves is whether the accommodation request is related to an essential function of the job or not. Oftentimes, job descriptions include things like "required to lift 25 pounds" or "valid driver's license required" when in fact, these are often boilerplate statements that are outdated and sometimes unrelated to actual essential functions of the job. 

If a job function is not essential, consider removing it. If an employee requests an accommodation for such a requirement, for example, "must be able to travel between branches and hold a valid driver's license" for the job of library clerk, employers should ask themselves if a valid driver's license is really required. While having a driver's license indicates the ability to drive from one location to the other, it is not the only means of transportation, nor is it likely that an essential function of every library clerk is to travel from branch to branch all day. 

Engage employees to identify appropriate accommodations

The interactive process is critical to success in identifying effective accommodations. Employers should encourage employees to communicate what is needed to perform the essential functions of their jobs and schedule one-on-one consultations with the employee to begin the interactive process. 

Throughout this process, employers should explore potential accommodations in consultation with the employee, their supervisors, and their medical providers. Where appropriate, engage the services of other professionals, such as vocational rehabilitation or EAP counselors.

In a situation in which the preferable accommodation may result in an undue hardship for the organization, explore the possibility of alternative accommodations together with the employee.

Employers should also be aware of their requirements and what constitutes an accommodation request. While it is strongly encouraged that employers have an established process to request an accommodation, a request for accommodation may also be an employee telling their supervisor that they cannot perform a task due to a medical condition or disability. For example, an employee tells his/her employer that they cannot reach their keyboard because their desk is too low and does not accommodate the height of their mobility device. Whether the employee ultimately files an official request for accommodation or not, this could be seen as a request for accommodation because the employee has communicated to his/her supervisor that they cannot perform an essential function of their job due to barriers in their work environment. 

While employers should encourage employees to follow official accommodation processes, employers should also provide training to supervisory staff so that requests for accommodation, whether official or not, are not overlooked. 

When necessary, obtain additional information

In some cases, the reason for reasonable accommodation may not be obvious. For example, an employee with a learning disability may request special software, such as speech-to-text, to help them input and collect data. While speech-to-text applications are readily available, they may pose sother challenges, such as triggering privacy concerns in environments in which confidentiality is valued. 

If such concerns exist or the employee’s need for a reasonable accommodation or their disability is not obvious, employers may request relevant medical information. In such circumstances, employers should consider incorporating the following into their process: 

  • Use available medical information to identify all available effective accommodations. 
  • Request that medical documentation is filled out on behalf of the employee by their medical provider.
  • Provide a copy of the employee’s job description to the medical provider and ask for guidance on accommodation. 

Assess if a direct threat exists

In some instances, granting an accommodation may pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, a call center employee requests that a service animal be permitted to accompany them to their cubicle. This request is perfectly reasonable as long as the service animal is under control and does not pose a direct threat to others. If the service animal spends its day growling and harassing other employees, however, it is no longer a reasonable accommodation as it may pose a direct threat to the safety of others. 
  • Use medical or professional analysis and evidence to assess the potential for direct threat.
  • Identify and document the potential risk or harm that could occur and the related evidence.
  • This exceptional situation may warrant a refusal of an accommodation request.

Monitoring and Communication

Once the accommodation is in place, continue to monitor the effectiveness of the accommodation. If at some point, circumstances change, and the accommodation is no longer effective, timely corrective action should be taken. Employers must facilitate ongoing communication, which is the key to keeping a track of how the accommodation is working for the employee as well as the organization.

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