EEOC issues guidance on accommodating disabled

Requests by disabled federal employees and applicants for reasonable workplace accommodations must be processed promptly and fairly, according to new guidance issued Friday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC guidance on Executive Order 13164 defines "reasonable accommodation" as a change in the work environment or application process that allows a disabled person to enjoy equal employment opportunities. For example, agencies must provide application forms in large print or Braille for visually impaired individuals.

The three categories for reasonable accommodation for disabled people include: making application forms accessible; making adjustments in the workplace-such as providing sign language interpreters-so that employees are able to perform essential job functions; and making the workplace comfortable by removing physical barriers.

"This guidance will help create additional opportunities for people with disabilities in the federal workplace," said EEOC Chairwoman Ida L. Castro. "By assuring that federal managers address reasonable accommodation requests in a prompt, fair and efficient manner, the guidance will remove workplace barriers that might otherwise confront qualified individuals with disabilities, thereby allowing them to reach their full potential."

According to the EEOC, agency procedures must be flexible, written in plain language and designed to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

In July, President Clinton issued executive orders requiring the federal government to hire 100,000 disabled workers by 2005 and directing agencies to establish procedures for processing requests for reasonable accommodation by disabled employees and applicants.

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act requires agencies to provide reasonable accommodation to employees or applicants with disabilities, unless it causes an undue burden on the agency. Section 508 of the act requires agencies to ensure that federal employees with disabilities have the same access to information and computers enjoyed by federal employees without disabilities.

The EEOC advises agencies to process requests as soon as possible, according to the nature of the request. For example, a reassignment request would probably take longer to review and implement than a request for a desk to be raised.

According to the guidance, employees or job applicants can request reasonable accommodation either in writing or orally, and can make additional requests depending on their conditions.

For example, suppose an agency approves the request of employee who has multiple sclerosis that his desk be raised to accommodate his wheelchair. If the employee requests an additional accommodation months later due to a worsening of his condition, the agency must process that request as well.

When a disability and/or the need for accommodation is not obvious, the agency may request that the individual provide medical documentation, which must keep confidential.

If an agency denies a request for reasonable accommodation, it must let the individual know in writing the reasons for the denial. The individual then has a right to file a complaint with the EEOC.

The guidance also instructs agencies to inform individuals and employees with disabilities of their rights under the Rehabilitation Act, explaining such terms as "essential functions" and "undue hardship" in plain language. Agency procedures must be made available to all employees via agency Web sites or employee handbooks and must be accessible to disabled employees.

Agencies must submit their procedures for processing requests for reasonable accommodations by July 26, 2001.

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