Across the country, employers are expected to facilitate inclusive, diverse and accessible workplaces so employees of all abilities can thrive. Central to this endeavour is the duty to accommodate employees with disabilities, ensuring they have equal opportunities for success regardless of their restrictions or limitations. However, navigating the complexities of disability accommodation requests can pose unique challenges for employers. From understanding legal obligations to fostering a culture of inclusion, there are various factors to consider.

This blog will examine the legal framework surrounding disability accommodation in Ontario and explore practical strategies to help employers fulfill their duty to accommodate effectively.

Understanding an Employer’s Duty to Accommodate

Under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, employers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of their employees with disabilities, even if not explicitly requested by an employee. Under this duty, employers must procedurally assess the requested accommodation as well as the actual substance of the accommodation.

However, the duty to accommodate is not absolute. An employer is only required to accommodate an employee to the point of undue hardship. In other words, an employer is not required to provide an employee with an accommodation if it would incur onerous costs, health or safety risks, or result in excessive or undue difficulty.

Navigating Accommodation Requests

The accommodation process is generally a collaborative process in which the employee and the employer must cooperate, share information, and work together to identify possible accommodation solutions. Both employers and employees need to understand that the accommodation process is a two-way street, and they have a responsibility to work together to develop an accommodation plan that meets the needs of both parties.

Employers must generally accept an employee’s accommodation request in good faith and maintain employee confidentiality and privacy throughout the process. Employers are responsible for actively investigating potential accommodation solutions and engaging in regular communication with the employee regarding their requests. During discussions with the employer, the employer must keep comprehensive records of the request and any actions that have been taken. Once the parties have determined the most appropriate accommodations, the employer must implement such accommodations promptly.

It is essential to note an employee is not automatically entitled to their preferred accommodation. However, they are entitled to the most reasonable and dignified accommodation short of undue hardship to the employer.

What Is Required in the Accommodation Process?

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, an employee making an accommodation request must make their needs known to their employer, typically in writing, and an employer has the responsibility to inquire about accommodations that may be required. The employee must actively participate in discussions about accommodations and provide details regarding their limitations and restrictions in the workplace. The employee must also work with accommodation providers or experts to help facilitate the accommodation process.

Employers are prohibited from taking negative action against an employee who has sought an accommodation or has disclosed a disability, as this may result in being found liable for discrimination under the Human Rights Code. Therefore, it is important to seek proactive legal advice to ensure that any disciplinary action taken against an employee is not tainted by bias.

What Information Can Be Requested?

It is vital for employers to be aware that under human rights legislation, the information requested from the employee to aid the accommodation request must be as minimally intrusive as possible. To meet the duty to accommodate, an employer can request particulars from the employee regarding their medical condition to understand:

  • Whether the employee has a disability;
  • How the disability affects and restricts the employee’s ability to work; and
  • What possible accommodation solutions will be appropriate and adequate in light of the employee’s restrictions.

In some cases, a diagnosis request may be sought to clarify the initial information provided. For example, this may be required if the information provided does not demonstrate that the employee has a disability or does not set out the type of accommodations that may be required. On the other hand, the “nature” of the employee’s condition can always be requested.

Common Examples of Workplace Accommodations

Employers must foster an inclusive and diverse workplace for all employees. As such, employers may be asked to accommodate physical, mental, and developmental disabilities, injuries, and chronic medical conditions. At a high level, there are four categories of workplace accommodations, specifically:

  • Environmental supports;
  • Visual supports;
  • Language and communication supports; and
  • Structural or physical supports.

Regarding specific accommodations, some requests may be satisfied with relatively straightforward modifications, while others might require more substantial changes. Some common examples of workplace accommodations are outlined in further detail below:

  • Providing flexible or modified work schedules, including remote work when available, to allow employees to adjust their working hours to meet their medical needs, such as attending appointments or treatment.
  • Physical adjustments to a workplace or office to ensure the employee can access their workspace comfortably, which may include a wheelchair ramp, ergonomic furniture, or other structural modifications.
  • Offering assistive technology, such as voice-to-text or speech recognition, or providing materials in an alternative and accessible format, such as larger text sizes or incorporation of photos.
  • Modifying work tasks or responsibilities depending on the specific needs of the employee.

Developing and Implementing Inclusive Workplace Policies

Employers should ensure they have a comprehensive human rights, accessibility and accommodations workplace policy. The policy should address various human rights and accommodations requirements set out by human rights legislation, including:

  • The purpose of the policy;
  • The scope of the policy’s application,
  • Who is responsible for administering the policy; and
  • The requisite procedures to be followed when addressing matters involving workplace accommodations and human rights concerns.

Employers must communicate the policy particulars to all employees and ensure they can access it.

Key Takeaways for Employers Regarding Accommodation Requests

Employers must be aware of their obligation to identify and address their employees’ accommodation needs to the point of undue hardship. It is also important to ensure the workplace has a sound human rights policy outlining an accommodation request process. However, obtaining legal advice before taking specific actions or disciplinary action against an employee who has disclosed a disability can help ensure that the employer’s duties and obligations are met and risks are mitigated.

Contact the Lawyers at Willis Business Law in Windsor-Essex for Comprehensive Advice on Workplace Accommodations and Human Rights Matters

At Willis Business Law, our skilled labour and employment lawyers understand the nuances associated with workplace matters, including disability accommodation requests, workplace policies, and wrongful dismissal claims. We know that every employee and accommodation request is unique, so we work closely with our clients to ensure that they understand their obligations and options regarding workplace issues. Whether you require assistance drafting workplace policies or are facing claims of discrimination, our lawyers can help you resolve your matter and move forward. To speak with a member of our team regarding your workplace matter, reach out to us online or call us at 519-945-5470.

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