Mastering ADA: Seven essentials for HR managers 

June 11, 2024
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In today's diverse workforce, it's essential for HR managers to have a deep understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Around 42.5 million Americans1 have a disability that impacts their work, leaving HR teams with an important role in creating an equal and inclusive environment.

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    42.5 million Americans have a disability that impacts their work.1
To help with that, here's some of the top advice that can help even seasoned HR managers create a team of HR professionals that are equipped with the knowledge to create a more accommodating workplace, stay ahead of compliance and better handle requests.

1. ADA expertise matters when creating a supportive work environment

It's not a legal requirement to know every ADA policy. In fact, with everything that HR handles daily, it'd be overwhelming for them to memorize every ADA law and regulation. HR managers can lead the way by honing a general understanding of core requirements and the best practices to implement them. Since employees can start the accommodation process anytime, it's important to be prepared and already have a good knowledge of ADA policies. This helps ease the accommodation process to prevent disability discrimination and stay compliant.

2. Intermittent leave is common and navigating it can be challenging

Intermittent leave is a protentional reasonable accommodation typically needed for disability flare-ups, treatments or other related reasons. Since the frequency and duration is often determined by the employee’s physician, it can be difficult to know when and for how long employees will be on leave. Automated processes, effective strategies and approval protocols can help manage your intermittent leave requests and make the process less challenging.

3. Indefinite leave is hard to define but necessary to get right

If an employee doesn't know when or if they'll return to work, what do you do?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “indefinite leave – meaning an employee cannot say if and when they will able to return to work at all – will constitute an undue hardship and so does not have to be provided as a reasonable accommodation."2

That sounds tricky to define, which is why the ADA recommends each request undergo an individual analysis. Part of HR managers' jobs is to look at the wholistic impacts that leave is having on the business, including the employee’s ability to say when they can return to work and stay at work.

Even if the employee has given a return-to-work date, providing leave can still be an undue hardship. To determine if the providing accommodation will constitute an undue hardship, you can factor in the following: employee’s previously granted leave, amount/length of leave being requested, the frequency of leave, how flexible the employee is with leave dates, if intermittent leave is predictable or not, how the leave will affect coworkers or job duties and the overall impact it has on business operations. Each of these factors can help assess whether indefinite leave is appropriate or not.

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    Even if the employee has given a return-to-work date, providing leave can still be an undue hardship.

4. Telecommuting is a popular request but not always appropriate

It seems we're in our "work-from-home" era with more employees defaulting to telecommuting requests versus exploring other options like receiving workplace accommodations.

It's common to see a telecommuting request when a health care provider says an employee can't drive but driving isn't a part of their essential job functions. While employers are not always obligated to make accommodations for how an employee gets to and from work, circuit court opinions indicate they may be obligated to address any challenges presented by commuting or travel restrictions. For example, if an employee works at night but can't drive in the dark, allowing them to switch to a day shift could be one way to accommodate them.

5. It's okay to place employees on leave if they're not following safety regulations

Sometimes it's appropriate to place an employee on leave even if they haven’t requested it for their safety and the safety of other employees. Let's say you have an establishment that requires special non-slip footwear for safety reasons. If an employee returns to work with a broken foot and a walking cast, but the walking cast doesn't have anti-skid features, you can place the employee on leave if there are no other effective accommodation options.

The ADA calls this a direct-threat situation. When faced with a potential direct threat, employers should use the interactive process to find reasonable accommodations before putting employees on leave. If no reasonable accommodations can be found, placing employees on leave until they can safely do their job may be the answer.

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    In a direct-threat situation, use the interactive process to try to find reasonable accommodations before putting employees on leave.

6. Employers have the right to ask for clarification and a list of restrictions

According to the EEOC, employers can ask for documents that are sufficient to describe an employee's impairment and how it affects their ability to do their job. This information is sometimes needed to determine if a reasonable accommodation is required and identify accommodation options.3

If insufficient information is received, employers have the right to seek more information and clearly defined restrictions when evaluating requests. Certain things like dizziness as a side effect from a medication may be provided as a restriction, but it’s unclear how this impacts the employee’s ability to do their job. In this scenario, employers can ask for clarification of how that dizziness may affect an employee's ability to perform their job functions, such as the ability to walk, use a computer or operate equipment or other relevant job functions.

7. Look at relevant skills and specialties when accepting documents from health care providers

The ADA requires individual analysis, so they don't have a list of approved types of health care providers. When evaluating requests, employers do have the right to ask that the health care provider have relevant skills, experience and expertise related to the employee’s disability, restrictions or limitations.

For example, say you receive documentation from an employee’s orthopedic doctor stating that the employee has neurological limitations. In this case, you may ask the employee for an evaluation by a neurologist before approving their accommodation.


The more knowledge you have, the easier it is to ensure you're handling ADA policies and leave laws effectively. Plus, with the right tools and empathetic support, you can easily stay compliant while managing absences. From administration to support from ADA experts, Unum offers several services that help streamline how you navigate ADA.
1 Pew Research Center, 8 facts about Americans with disabilities, 2023.
2 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (EEOC), Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 5/9/2016. Accessed 2/29/2024.
3 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (EEOC), Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the ADA, 7/26/2000. Accessed 5/10/2024.

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