Employees who want their employers to make reasonable accommodations for their disabilities must let their employers know they need accommodations. Only after that happens can the employer and employee legitimately begin what the ADA refers to as the “interactive accommodations process.”
But some employees don’t want to provide a lot of medical information and may stall the process while they make numerous accommodation suggestions, expecting the employer to say yes or no. And if the employer rejects those requests, employees often sue, alleging the employer didn’t seriously consider accommodating the disability.
The truth is, unless the disability and accommodation are obvious (e.g, someone using a wheelchair wants a handicapped parking spot or a first-floor office), you can and should get the medical information first.
If you don’t have reliable medical information to guide you, courts won’t say you refused to engage in the accommodations process. After all, how else could you possibly assess what work employees are capable of doing or even whether they’re actually disabled and entitled to accommodations?
Recent case: Virginia Hemby-Grubb was a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) when she was in a serious auto accident. Afterward, she claimed she suffered from numerous physical and psychological problems that prevented her from teaching a full course load.
She asked for one of several accommodations: that her husband be hired in her stead as a tenured professor, that the university permanently reduce the number of classes she had to teach or that she be allowed to retire at 75% of her salary, plus benefits.
IUP asked Hemby-Grubb to produce documentation detailing her medical condition. It scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter and indicated its willingness to talk—after it received the requested information. It never came.
Meanwhile, Hemby-Grubb interviewed for a tenure-track position at another institution, got that job, quit and sued IUP, alleging it had refused to engage in the accommodations process.
The court tossed out her claim, reasoning that IUP was at least entitled to enough information to evaluate possible accommodations or whether the professor was disabled. (Hemby-Grubb v. IUP, No. 2:06-CV-13-07, WD PA, 2008)