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Ready or Not: Accommodations

This is the final post in a series of 5 blogs focusing on the typical components that businesses think they need to be “ready” to intentionally employ people with disabilities. (see first blogif you want to know what I mean by “ready”)

As I said in the first one, there are 2 points of view related to “ready”:

1. The person is not in a position of authority or influence to make their company “ready”, but they can see flaws in the current status

2. The person is in a position of authority and influence but doesn’t see the priority in creating the “readiness” or doesn’t really understand what “ready” looks like.

Today we are addressing “readiness” in relation to accommodations. It seems like you can’t introduce the topic of employing people with disabilities without someone mentioning a fear related to accommodations. And here is why –

1. It’s a legal term, and any and all legal terms makes everyone squirm (except perhaps a very experienced disability lawyer)

2. It implies that you have to spend money

3. Almost everyone believes they have to “figure it out” and have no clue how or where to start

So, this post, the last of the year will tackle these fears and some practical aspects and tips of managing accommodations from both the employers’ as well as the employees’ perspective.

Accommodations are important, but they usually are smaller than this long word implies (it’s also tough to spell for me so I am very thankful for auto spellcheck on this one).

So, let’s touch on what they are and why they’re important before getting to the meat of this blog.

Accommodations are important for everyone, when you shed the legal term, it’s just a pleasant word meaning “something in which someone may live or stay”, or “a convenient arrangement”. But when you add the legal term, that’s when worry lines get creased into a forehead… The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) created this terror. A very helpful piece of legislation prohibiting discrimination created fodder for oppositionists who believe in scarcity and like to scare people. But an accommodation doesn’t take anything away from anyone and doesn’t have to be such a big deal.

In common terms, as it relates to the ADA and people with disabilities, an accommodation is something that’s different and allows a person with a disability to fully participate in whatever is going on… That’s it! But people tend to couch it into its legal definition and wrap it in fear of the unknown.

First of all, there is a tremendous resource out there that is FREE and unbiased – the Job Accommodation Network for anything you need help with. Call them, meander around their website, download their new app – MAS (search MAS JAN on the app store), attend a seminar or listen to a webinar they are hosting. They don’t bite, they are the most helpful resource you could ever want. They aren’t intrusive, they’re accurate, full of information, free, friendly, easy to access, unobtrusive, and did I mention free? Employers have so much fear around accommodations and disabilities, they are too intimidated to reach out to JAN, which is silly… DO IT! CALL THEM!

Second, accommodations are not usually a big deal. I have helped over 100 companies hire people with disabilities, at this point, over 10,000 people with disabilities have been employed by those companies and I can count on 2 hands the number of times we had to grapple with a complicated and/or expensive accommodation. I want you to re-read that… Did you notice the 2 key points, less than 10 times in the employment of over 10,000 people were complicated/expensive accommodations needed AND I said “WE had to grapple with”? Accommodations are like balloons, they are nothing in a vacuum generally useless. Always embark on them with a friend (or a friendly stranger like JAN if you have no one else).

So, lets get into best practices and practical tips for being ready in terms of accommodations:

1. You need a process to track accommodation requests and outcomes: It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it needs to be well communicated. You can actually hire a third party to manage it, I am not quite sure why any company does that (I have to assume it’s the fear, or the fact that their company is a mess administratively and so that’s the only way to manage process).

The process should document who made the request; what was requested; a short bit about the barrier and the function of work that the accommodation will relieve; notes about the outcome; if something was purchased track it as inventory; and the schedule for verifying that it still works (annually or biannually makes sense to me). Hint: this can be a spread sheet as long as you keep the employee’s info protected… (because of HIPPA you know…)

The process needs to be well communicated, you want everyone following the same process and responding to requests in the same manner. Not having a process, not communicating it well and not having people respond in the same way is what gets you in trouble and excites the lawyers.

2. You need a procurement and budget process: In some companies, it makes sense to have a general fund, in some cases, it makes sense to give each department a budget line… It doesn’t need to be overanalyzed, just try one and if that seems to add work, try the other. The key question I get asked is “if I’m starting out hiring people with disabilities, what’s a good amount to start with?” My answer $100,000… then when they balk and sweat, I counter with $100. There is no way to know what is “right”, so just track the spending for a few years and then “set” a budget. Or take a wild stab at it and then tweak it each year. I could go on about this forever… maybe I should create a workbook to help folks in setting up simple systems. The procurement process needs to be different to realize that you aren’t going to get any “bulk” pricing advantages, and it may happen differently than most purchases if you are a medium to large sized business.

3. You need to determine what autonomy managers have for deciding accommodations: what is your current policy for when an employee needs unexpectedly leave work early or take time off to manage a personal matter? If that is well defined and regulated, then you probably want a very stringent process. If you trust your managers to do what’s right for their employees in those situations, then you should trust them in an accommodations system… as long as it’s documented. Then as you audit this annually, you can identify any gaps or lack of clarity and tighten it up.

4. Quick note on the typical panic button related to accommodation: in the VERY rare chance that an employee needs a technologically complex accommodation, bring in others to help: if it is software or hardware, you will need the tech guys, IT, Procurement, and others. Leverage JAN for research and recommendations. The employee is the expert on the usability of the solution, but that doesn’t mean they get the “Cadillac” version if something else works. Each state has something called an “Assistive Technology Project” which can help with borrowing or loaning different technology if you are not sure what will work with your current systems. It may take a while to find the best solution and that is OK.

AND there may not be a solution, in which case, it may not be accommodatable…

5. You should NEVER be deciding what accommodation an employee should have. NEVER NEVER NEVER – how would you possibly know? The decisions should always be a discussion that involves the barriers, the needs, the job functions, and other aspects that influence whether the accommodation will make the employee successful or not. If I had a dollar for every time someone has mentioned that they feel responsible for anticipating an employee’s needs, I would be wealthier than Warren Buffet. Please allow the determinations of what “might work” be made interactively and as a process.

OK, I am off the soapbox now. I know it’s tough – there is an industry of lawyers out there that like to scare and spread fake news about accommodations. There are also some very wise attorneys that can help with accommodations and, if you are lucky, you can work with someone who helps you find a solution, not just someone who tosses risks at you. But despite whatever legal interactions you need to have, please reach out to the Job Accommodation Network. They’re a bunch of very wise, experienced, smart friendly group of people and they are truly there to help you.

OK, so now, do you realize that you ARE ready to employ people with disabilities? Accommodations are typically simple and free, and help is right around the corner. You need a process, a budget and communication about both – all of that can be accomplished in less than a week unless you decide to make it more complicated. And that has nothing to do with being READY, that has to do with fear.

You are ready to employ people with disabilities. You have ALREDY been employing them, you just weren’t realizing it. It’s like electricity… It already existed, it just took someone to create a lightbulb so that you could see it. You have already been employing people with disabilities, I am just here to shine a light on it. And since you have already been doing it, you were already “READY”.

The Next series of posts will be focused on “getting a job” offering tips and information toward people with disabilities, but actually helpful for all! See you in 2019!!! Thanks to all for reading/listening and creating a more inclusive workplace.

*a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and none of this should replace legal counsel when you need some. However, it is my opinion that disability inclusion workplaces can be created without the help of a lawyer.

(Note: for more info on the business case of disability inclusion, feel free to download my new eBook: Disability Inclusion: A Summary of the Direct and Indirect Benefits)

The word "ready" spelled out in scrabble tiles

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