What Can You Do to Encourage Discussions About Accommodating Employee Disabilities?

Key Points:

  1. People with disabilities face barriers in employment, and accommodations such as accessibility facilities, flexible policies, and modified equipment are crucial for their work experience and quality of life.
  2. Many Canadian companies lack clear accommodation practices, resulting in less than 20% of people with disabilities using accommodations despite their right to be accommodated.
  3. The disclosure of disabilities in the workplace is influenced by individual, employment, and societal barriers, including fear of discrimination, stigma, and negative stereotypes.
  4. Most organizations (of all sizes) can usually successfully accommodate employees at little or no cost.

John has worked at a large retail company for five years and has always been a valuable employee. He was recently diagnosed with a condition that causes chronic pain and fatigue. This condition makes it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time, which is a requirement of his job as a cashier.

John discusses his condition with his manager and requests an accommodation. After a thorough review of John’s medical records and an interactive process to determine the most appropriate accommodation, the company agrees to provide John with a stool to sit on while he works.

With this accommodation, John is able to continue to perform his job duties effectively and to contribute to the success of the company. He no longer experiences the intense pain and fatigue that he had been struggling with before.

Moreover, John feels supported by the company and is more committed to his job than ever before. He becomes a vocal advocate for the company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and works to ensure that other employees with disabilities have the support they need to succeed.

In this hypothetical story, the company’s willingness to provide an accommodation not only helps John to continue to work effectively, but also creates a sense of organizational identification and engagement among its employees. By valuing diversity and supporting its employees with disabilities, the company creates a more inclusive and supportive workplace that benefits everyone. Sadly, it’s all too common for organizations to fail to provide reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities and it’s too often that such decisions go undetected by the laws and officers that govern them.

People with disabilities face barriers relating to employment which puts them at risk of social or economic harm. One factor which may influence their work experience is the accommodations or supports they receive . Accommodations may include:
• Accessibility facilities
• Flexible policies
• Written job instructions
• Transportation
• Modified equipment
• Flexible work schedules
• Telecommunication
• Redesigned work environments

This is important as working without necessary supports can negatively affect both work and life quality for employees with disabilities. In Canada, it is required for employers to accommodate people with disabilities unless they can prove the cost or requirements are excessive. Despite this, many companies lack clear and active practices for accommodations making it more difficult for people with disabilities to receive them. Less than 30% of Canadian businesses have clear disability policies. As a result, less than 20% of people with disabilities use accommodations despite their right to be accommodated This is often because employees with disabilities see more harm than benefit coming from weighing the pros and cons of informing others of their disability.

What Influences Disclosure?

Most businesses require employees disclose their disability, meaning they must discuss how their symptoms may impact their job performance and advocate for needed accommodations. The main benefits of disclosing a disability come from the better work experiences that come from adapting tasks based on the employee’s needs. Common disadvantages include discrimination, isolation, or stigma.

Sally Lindsay, Elaine Cagliostro and Gabriella Carafa completed a review of 27 articles including over 18,000 participants to improve our understanding of workplace accommodation requests and disclosing disabilities for youth. In addition, they showed how and when youth disclose disabilities in the employment process. Their research identified individual, employment, and societal barriers relating to disclosure and accommodations.

Barriers to Disclosure and Accommodations.

Youth with disabilities fear that disclosing their disability will hurt their employment opportunities as a result of negative myths or stereotypes about employees with disabilities. Many characteristics of disabilities influenced if youth with disabilities would discuss their condition with their employer to receive accommodation s. One study found that 73% of youth with learning disabilities that felt their condition impacted their work, only 55% disclosed to receive accommodations. Another said that 29% of youth aged 20-29 had unmet accommodation needs. Many fear that disclosure will be followed by discrimination or stigmatization. Multiple studies note that this fear is often rooted in prior experiences of discrimination.

Disclosure of their disability depends on many personal factors including:
• Disability type
• Visibility of the disability
• Time since diagnosis
• Severity of the condition
• Associated stigma
• Personal characteristics of the employee
• Personal views of their disability
• Length of employment
• Work experience

In addition to personal differences influencing the disclosure, many characteristics relating to the job or company itself are impactful. These include factors like:
• Industry of the business
• Job expectations
• Work conditions
• Potential reactions of managers or co-workers
• Perceived job security

Accommodations are less common in temporary, part-time, non-unionized, and low wage jobs. Youth with disabilities employed in manufacturing or trades received fewer accommodations than those in management, health, or service occupations. Though these organizational factors decrease the willingness employees have to discuss their disabilities, it is important to remember that all organizations of all sizes can successfully accommodate employees often at little or no cost.

So, what can we do to facilitate disclosure and accommodation?

Organizations can help facilitate disclosure by increasing awareness in their employees about available supports, providing support and training to managers, and encouraging positive interactions and attitudes surrounding accommodations . Organizations that openly discuss accommodation rights and options promote an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs. Even better, organizations that consider universal designs to support unique needs of all employees naturally helps to decrease the need for individualized accommodations. Organizations can also provide training relating to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility skills and topics to promote disclosure and improve accommodations. In addition, organizations can support employees with disabilities by providing them with training and resources to improve their knowledge and skills surrounding their options and rights in the workplace. These sessions may cover communicating, accommodation options, and benefits to prepare employees for discussions surrounding their needs . Finally, employees with disabilities feel most comfortable disclosing their needs when they have positive relationships with supervisors. It also helps if the supervisors act as an advocate for these employees by promoting positive attitudes surrounding disabilities. For example, two studies found that youth who had co-workers and supervisors with more positive attitudes about disabilities felt more comfortable in the accommodations process.

Takeaways for your practice:

  • Create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs.
  • Promote awareness and training on accommodations, equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.
  • Foster positive relationships between employees with disabilities and their supervisors.
  • Recognize that accommodations benefit both individuals and the organization, leading to improved job performance and an accepting workplace culture.

More effective accommodations are possible in workplaces where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs. Accommodations benefit the individuals who receive them, as well as the greater organization. Young employees receiving accommodations had enhanced job performance, productivity, increased likelihood of overcoming problems, and viewed their workplace as having an accepting environment. You can help your employees by creating a positive environment where employees feel they have the skills, information, and support they need to safely discuss their needs so that they may be better accommodated.

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Lindsay, S., Cagliostro, E., & Carafa, G. (2017). A systematic review of workplace disclosure and accommodation requests among youth and young adults with disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation, 1–16. doi:10.1080/09638288.2017.1363824

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