Government contractors and subcontractors have one more thing of which to be aware when it comes to accommodating disabled individuals. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), part of the U.S. Department of Labor, has created a new “Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation” pocket card.

According to the OFCCP’s official announcement, the card “helps applicants, employees and other interested parties understand the process for requesting a reasonable accommodation” under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 503 prohibits discrimination against — and requires employers with federal contracts or subcontracts in excess of $10,000 to take affirmative action to hire, retain, and promote — qualified individuals with disabilities.

Now, individuals who apply to or are employed by federal contractors can use the pocket card to find the OFCCP’s answers to these questions:

  • What is a reasonable accommodation?
  • How do I request a reasonable accommodation?
  • What do I need to tell my employer?
  • What happens after the request is made?

How this card assists disabled individuals:

First, the existence of the card draws attention to the fact that reasonable accommodations are available for applicants, as well as employees, a fact of which individuals may not otherwise be aware.

Second, it makes the important point that a “reasonable accommodation” for one person may differ from another’s, based on the nature of the disability or the job.

Third, it provides contact information (phone, website, and TTY) for individuals to be in touch directly with the OFCCP.

How this card leaves questions unanswered:

First, the “answers” provided are very simplistic and somewhat misleading if used as the single source of information on the issue. For example, the response to “How do I request a reasonable accommodation?” begins, “Typically, just ask.” While the paragraph goes on to say that “some contractors do have a specific process, so ask your employer,” that language makes it sound as if a simple request always will result in an accommodation.

Second, the card refers simply to “disability” without further information or definition, and provides examples of accommodations relevant for physical disabilities (improving accessibility, modifying equipment, providing readers/interpreters), leaving the unfortunate impression that psychological disabilities are not included.

Third, the card does not address the “interactive process” requirement, and may lead individuals to believe that the onus for formulating an appropriate accommodation is solely on the employer.

How this card may create confusion for both individuals and employers:

While the OFCCP’s announcement labels the card as part of its “worker outreach and education efforts,” the unfortunate result of the card may be an uptick in confusion around the accommodation process.

When individuals hold information directly from a governmental agency in their hands during discussions with an employer, those individuals tend to believe that such information includes the final word on the issue. This could lead to less flexibility in the accommodation requesting process, and less willingness to engage in an interactive process.

Further, the OFCCP’s contact information is accompanied by the clear and unmistakable direction for when such contact should occur: “If you believe that you have experienced discrimination, contact OFCCP.” Such a directive allows no opportunity for questions related to the process, and may create more litigation than it avoids.

While the results of this card remain to be seen, federal contractors should recognize that the accessibility and simplistic nature of this card makes it a go-to for individuals. Companies therefore should be prepared to discuss the issues with applicants and employees, and to answer questions raised by the pocket card.