Workplace Accomodation for Disabled Employees

Creating a workplace free from discrimination against people with disabilities should be a high priority for any company. Not only is accommodating disabled employees the right thing to do, but it is also required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and often under state law as well. In today’s post, we will look at the accommodation process.

What is a Disability?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says someone may be disabled “if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing or learning).”

According to the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), in February 2014, 19.1% of the American workforce is disabled. People with disabilities currently experience an unemployment rate of 14.3%, while those without disabilities are at a 6.8% unemployment rate. When looking at these numbers, it is easy to see that avoiding disabled workers means ignoring a large number of potential employees.

Handling Requests for Reasonable Accommodation

Although the EEOC prohibits discrimination based on disability, some employers are still hesitant to hire disabled employees because of concerns about accommodating them in the workplace. In reality, the reasonable accommodation process is generally not difficult.

One of the best free resources for the reasonable accommodation process is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service provided by ODEP. The JAN website contains sample accommodation forms, definitions of a variety of disabilities, ideas for reasonable accommodations and access to ADA experts.

Develop a process for your company. This should include creating forms employees can use to request an accommodation. When an employee makes a request, give them the accommodation forms, which they will take to their health care practitioner to complete. Once the employee brings the forms back, you will have information on what type of accommodation they need. This is called the interactive process. Think of it as a conversation between you and the employee in order to come to an agreement about a reasonable accommodation. Document the conversations you have and how you met the request for reasonable accommodation.

Reasonable accommodations may include things like worksite accessibility, modifying someone’s work schedule, providing leave, restructuring a job or providing special equipment.

JAN’s website provides many ideas for reasonable accommodations based on type of disability. I have used their site many times when working with disabled employees. You can also call their experts to discuss your specific situation.

If you end up with a challenging request where an employee is being uncooperative or making unreasonable demands, it is a good idea to contact a labor attorney before denying a request or taking adverse action.

Getting Managers on Board

I have found that managers are worried about the accommodation process because they do not understand the ADA. Provide training to your managers to help them understand the ADA and the benefits of creating an accommodating workplace.

Many social service agencies for disabled workers provide free training to employers. Their goal is help disabled workers find employment, and many are happy to schedule time to talk to managers at your business about disabilities in the workplace. It is a great opportunity for your managers to ask all their questions, so they become comfortable with the process. As an added bonus, I have also received some really good job seeker referrals from agencies that help disabled workers find jobs.

In the End…

In my experience, most reasonable accommodation requests are easy. Take the time to talk to the employee making the request to understand their needs and come up with a plan for accommodation that works for your business and the employee. Doing so is not only a legal requirement, but it is good for business.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

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