The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Workplace Inclusivity for People With Disabilities: Accommodating Specific Needs

This is part one of a two-part blog post contributed by Abby King, accommodation specialist at University of Kansas, and William Budding, HR coordinator at Harvard University’s School of Dental Medicine, both of whom are alumni of CUPA-HR’s Wildfire program for early-career higher ed HR professionals.

Look for part two — Workplace Inclusivity for People With Disabilities: Creating a Welcoming Environment for All next week.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been in effect for nearly 30 years, yet many workplaces still struggle with making effective accommodations, and even more so with creating an inclusive environment for individuals with disabilities as part of their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and daily practice.

Accommodation vs. Inclusion

Many employers think only about the legal requirements when it comes to creating a workplace that enables individuals with disabilities to effectively do their jobs. While it is of paramount importance to comply with the ADA in creating reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, it is of equal importance to foster a culture of inclusion from the get-go. We’ll talk more about what this means and how organizations can create this welcoming environment in part two of this post. Here, we’ll focus on accommodations.

What Is a Reasonable Accommodation?

According to the ADA, a reasonable accommodation is “any modification or adjustment to a job, the job application process or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process, perform the essential functions of the job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.”

Examples of reasonable accommodations include making existing facilities readily accessible to and usable by employees with disabilities; restructuring a job; modifying work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; and reassigning a current employee to a vacant position for which the individual is qualified.

Make It a Formal Process

It’s important for employers to have a formal process in place for requesting and making accommodations. Why? Consider the following scenario:

An employee suffers from severe migraines, and when he gets a migraine, he must go to a dark room to recover. You, being the trusting supervisor and knowing you have a good employee, give him the go-ahead to go to the room whenever needed. This is an informal accommodation. No paperwork has been completed, and there is no official record. Fast forward two years and you, as a supervisor, have moved on to a new job. The employee with the migraines now has a new supervisor but doesn’t think about mentioning the accommodation of going to a dark room. This then leads to unnecessary and uncomfortable conversations between the new supervisor and the employee and potentially unnecessary disciplinary action.

These types of situations can be avoided by having employees file for formal accommodations with the institution’s ADA office. In our scenario, if the formal process was adhered to, as the new supervisor begins employment the employee could present the supervisor with the accommodation paperwork. If the supervisor has questions, she can go to the ADA office. Meanwhile, the employee is being accommodated as he always has, and the new supervisor does not have to wonder why the employee disappears into a dark room from time to time.

Being Proactive Is Key

While ADA compliance and following the reasonable accommodation process is key to supporting disabled workers, it is equally important to create a work environment that is inclusive of a diverse workforce from the start, before you have a specific case or employee need to address.

Next week, in part two of this post, we’ll explore how can we think more broadly and be more proactive about creating an inclusive workplace for individuals with disabilities.

If you’re attending the CUPA-HR annual conference later this month and you’d like to learn more about creating an inclusive environment for employees with disabilities, be sure to check out the following sessions:

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Visit the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy web page to learn how employers can create an inclusive workplace for employees with disabilities.

Helpful Resources:
ADA toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center

JAN (Job Accommodation Network)