Requesting an Accommodation Means More Than Saying, "I'm Disabled."

 My cold, black employment-law heart is numb to just about anything.

I remember this one time, early in my career, when I had to depose a teenage female plaintiff and ask her, with her mother present in the room, whether it offended her that her alleged male sexual harasser wanted to have a threesome with her and her mother.

Back then, it seemed salacious. Now, it's like, whatever. Most of this stuff just rolls off of my shoulders.

But I do have a soft spot for failure-to-accommodate cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For, I get how hard it is for an employee to have to share with an employer -- let alone anyone -- that the employee has [insert name of disability]. It's a very vulnerable position.

Triggering a duty to accommodate.

The Americans with Disabilities Act tasks employers with providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to allow them to perform the essential functions of the job.

However, as hard as it for an employee to communicate to an employer that he/she has a disability, a recent federal court decision reminds us that merely communicating the existence of a disability is not enough to trigger an employer's duty to accommodate.

In Wallace v. Heartland Community College, the court noted that, while the plaintiff did make her employer aware that she had a disability which was causing her "stress and pain" at work, she failed to communicate how she wanted her employer to accommodate her disability [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers].

And although "requests for accommodations need not be communicated through formal channels," and there may have been some semblance of a reasonable accommodation discussion, the court determined that the plaintiff was responsible for the breakdown of the interactive process that failed to result in identifying a reasonable accommodation.

Make it easier for employees to request accommodations.

The case provides a good lesson to employers and employees alike about the importance of open communication and cooperation in determining what accommodation(s), if any, will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. Although the law may place the onus on the employee to advance the ball, at least initially, when discussing workplace accommodations, proactive employers should facilitate these discussions by educating employees, through policy and training, about the ways in which employees can make these requests.

 This article was originally published on Eric B. Meyer's blog, The Employer Handbook.

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