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Understanding Disabilities and Accommodations

The Employee Reasonable Accommodation Policy and Procedure guides the university in helping faculty and staff with disabilities successfully perform their jobs, and enjoy W&M programs and benefits.  Following the policy and procedure, Human Resources works with faculty, staff, and administrators to determine whether a disability exists and whether and what accommodation is appropriate.  Individual supervisors and managers are not authorized to approve disability accommodations; they should encourage faculty and staff to contact [[dmhowe, Debbie Howe]], Deputy Chief Human Resources Officer.  

What is a disability?  

The Policy and Procedure defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities.[1]  Major life functions include caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. The university’s determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity will be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as medication, medical supplies, equipment, appliances, or prosthetics, except for ordinary contact lenses and eyeglasses.

Under the policy and procedure, each impairment is examined to determine whether or not it constitutes a disability.  

  • Physical characteristics such as eye color, hair color, height, weight, or muscle tone that fall within a “normal” range and are not caused by a physiological disorder do not count as impairments. A predisposition to illness or disease is also not an impairment. 
  • Illegal drug use is not a disability.  Compulsive gambling, pyromania, kleptomania, and various sexual behavior disorders are not considered to be disabilities.
  • Pregnancy itself is not a disability, but pregnancy-related impairments may constitute a disability. There are further pregnancy considerations under Title IX including the legal right to take breaks to breastfeed or to express milk.  
  • An impairment that is episodic -- that comes and goes -- or that is in remission is a disability if it would constitute a disability when active.  Examples of impairments that may be episodic include bipolar disorder, diabetes, hypertension, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and asthma. 
  • An impairment that is trivial or of short duration is not a disability.  Examples include a cold, the flu, or mild seasonal allergies.  

[1]  "Physical or mental impairment" for purposes of this guidance and William & Mary policy and procedure is defined by the regulations promulgated by the Department of Justice (28 C.F.R. 35.104) and includes disorders and conditions such as emotional illnesses and learning disabilities as well as diseases and speech and hearing impairments. 

What is an accommodation?  

An accommodation is "a modification, change or adjustment to an individual’s job, work conditions or work environment, or to the job application process for an applicant. An accommodation can be a change to the way job functions are typically performed, made in order to allow a qualified individual with a disability to perform the job."  Federal law requires W&M to make reasonable accommodations for employees (faculty or staff) with disabilities; it is part of our obligation not to discriminate.  

Examples of possible reasonable accommodations include:

  • Reallocating or redistributing marginal job functions that an employee is unable to perform because of a disability, such as switching duties between employees.
  • Alternating when or how a job function is performed.
  • Leave, which is typically administered by Human Resources (in some cases, for faculty, by the Provost's Office).
  • A modified or part time schedule, such as adjusted arrival or departure times or periodic breaks.
  • Reassignment to a vacant position for which the employee is qualified (this is a “last resort” accommodation subject to several restrictions and conditions).
  • Modification of a workplace policy.
  • Purchase of specialized equipment, so long as the equipment is not a personal-use item. 

The following modification, exceptions, or requests generally are NOT reasonable accommodations:

  • Changing a supervisor.
  • Waiving a conduct violation or excusing poor performance.  If a disability is disclosed in connection or in response to disciplinary or performance management action, the typical response will be to continue with the action while also considering accommodation going forward, as the university has no obligation to make retroactive accommodations.
  • Making a position designated as ineligible for telework a telework position; however, telework can be a reasonable accommodation. (Note that faculty positions generally are considered partial-telework positions.)
  • Purchase of personal-use items – equipment or services needed to accomplish daily activities both during and outside of working time. This includes items such as medication, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and prosthetic limbs. If equipment or a device is only needed for the job, however, it may be a reasonable accommodation. 
  • Personal assistance services, such as providing a personal attendant.  (If a faculty or staff member has a personal assistant, it may be a reasonable accommodation for W&M to permit the personal assistant to join the employee on the job site and to assist him or her.)

To learn more about the obligation to accommodate, visit the Discrimination Guidance website.  To learn more about disability accommodations, contact [[dmhowe, Debbie Howe]], or review the Employee Reasonable Accommodation Policy and Procedure.  

Updated July 2020