The Cornell Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers

Tips, checklists, and resources to help managers lead a disability inclusive workforce.

Topic #7
Finding an Effective Accommodation:
What Works and What Doesn't Work?

You are not alone

You are not alone in the process of finding an accommodation for an employee with a disability. A first step is to call your local HR Manager or Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 or visit Disability Accommodations.

A key resource:  The Job Accommodation Network 

The Job Accommodation Network provides free and anonymous consulting around disability accommodations and a website that covers a wide variety of issues and types of accommodations.  Consider using SOAR (Searchable Online Accommodation Resource) to learn about possible accommodations for different types of disabilities. Also, find out about tax and financial incentives available for disability accommodations. Call 800-526-7234 or visit the website at

Finding accommodations—Be flexible; be creative

The most effective accommodations aren’t always the most expensive or elaborate. Many effective accommodations cost little or nothing. Start by asking the employee if they have any ideas about what might work for them. Remember, a key part of finding an accommodation is to think creatively.  Consider these examples:

  • A blind product assembler has a co-worker read aloud assembly instructions for new product lines. This takes about 30 – 60 minutes of a co-worker’s time each time a new product line comes in (about once every two –three months).
  • A worker using a wheelchair uses wooden blocks to slightly elevate a desk.
  • A researcher with depression works at home two days a week for a month.
  • An investment broker with diabetes takes three five-minute breaks during the work day to manage her condition and stays 15 minutes later at the end of the day.
  • A librarian using a wheelchair can’t reach high shelves. She exchanges marginal job duties with another employee. While a co-worker re-shelves higher books, she takes on this co-worker’s duty to enter returned books in the computer.

Put technology to work

Innovations in technology have completely changed how individuals with and without disabilities function at work and have opened many new doors for accommodations. Called “assistive technology,” these innovations for individuals with disabilities are rapidly becoming more powerful, more user-friendly and less costly. Consider the following examples:

  • A computer technician with a hearing disability uses text messaging and a vibrating pager to communicate with co-workers. During a few key interactions (such as the annual performance review), he uses an online service that provides real-time sign language interpretation via the web.
  • A customer support professional with visual disabilities uses a large print key board and a screen magnifier. 
  • An accountant with post-polio syndrome has limited use of her hands. At work, she uses a trackball mouse and speech-to-text software that enables her to use all computer applications and email through dictating directly into her computer.
  • A business writer who is blind does computer-based research and answers email faster than sighted users. He uses screen reading software that quickly converts electronic text into speech.  

Some accommodations are better than others

Not all accommodations are equal. Some accommodations, though legal, are less than ideal. Always begin by considering those accommodations which, as much as possible, keep the employee engaged in the essential functions of their job. Accommodations such as extended leave or job reassignment are more likely to disrupt productivity and engagement. Consider these accommodation as options of last resort. 

When can the employer deny an accommodation?

Employers can deny accommodations that cause undue hardship—that cause significant difficulty or expense. Undue hardship is determined on a case by case basis, considering the overall resources of the organization, the cost of the accommodation, and the extent to which the accommodation disrupts work operations. If an employee’s disability is such that ANY accommodation causes undue hardship, the employee is no longer qualified for the job and may be re-assigned or terminated. As a manager, do not deny an employee’s accommodation without first consulting Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration office for next steps.

About leave as an accommodation option

Though less than ideal, sometimes work leave is the only accommodation option. But how much leave must be given? Under the ADA, the employer must provide the same paid leave it would provide similarly-situated employees for leave related to a disability. When paid leave is exhausted, the employer might need to provide unpaid leave if no other accommodation option exists. Under the ADA, there is no set limit about how much leave must be granted or when leave constitutes undue hardship for the employer. This is determined on a case by case basis. Other laws, however, such as the Family & Medical Leave Act, cover leave for shorter-term conditions and may have set limits for how much leave can be taken. When an employee takes leave as a disability accommodation, her job must be kept open for them until they return to work. 

What is NOT a disability accommodation? 

  • Providing travel to/from the workplace (This is the employee’s responsibility. Employers, though, may find it beneficial to provide support).
  • Providing equipment which the employee uses outside of their job, such as eye glasses, wheel chairs or hearing aids.
  • Monitoring the employee’s medications.
  • Creating a new job role or a job opening for employees needing a job transfer (though the employer can choose to do this as part of a fairly and uniformly applied policy that applies to all employees.)
  • Light duty (employers can choose to provide a light duty option, but are not required to offer light duty as a disability accommodation.)
  • Eliminating essential job functions.
  • Monitoring employee’s medication or treatments.
  • Compromising the employer’s ethics or behavior standards as outlined in a fairly and uniformly applied conduct policy.
  • Compromising productivity.

Accommodating veterans with disabilities

At Cornell, we value the skills, discipline and teamwork veteran employees bring to our workplace and are fully committed to providing accommodations to veteran employees who need them. As a manager, strive to create a climate of trust, respect and openness so that veterans are willing to come forward with a disability, both for our reporting purposes and to ensure these veterans get the accommodations they need. 


Two common types of disabilities among returning veterans are post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) (Tanielan & Jaycox, 2008). These two disabilities are sometimes called the “signature disabilities” of Gulf War Era II Veterans. Veterans with these two types of disabilities have a right to an accommodation if one is needed. What do these accommodations look like? Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Like any other accommodation request, LISTEN to the veteran. How does the disability impact the essential functions of the job? What are his concerns? What specific challenges does the disability pose for their job?
  • PTSI and TBI are often unfolding after the veteran returns to the civilian workforce. Veterans might still be coming to terms with the diagnosis and treatment long after returning from deployment.
  • No “one size fits all.” PTSI and TBI are different for each individual. So accommodations will also need to be considered for each individual.
  • Question common misperceptions around PTSI and TBI. These conditions are not the result of a “weak personality” or character flaws. Despite the newspaper headlines, people with these conditions are not likely to pose a danger to others in the workplace (Norman, Elbogen & Schnurr, 2014). 
  • The Job Accommodation Network gives excellent suggestions for possible accommodations for veterans with these disabilities.  These can be found at
  • Contact the Medical Leaves Administration office or Cornell's Military Community Resources page for more information.


Norman, S., Elbogen, E. & Schnurr, P. (2014).  Research Findings on PTSD and Violence. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Accessed at


Tanielan T, Jaycox, L, (Eds.) (2008). Invisible wounds of war: Psychological and cognitive injuries, their consequences, and services to assist recovery. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Center for Military Health Policy. Accessed at