As an employer, what do you think of when you hear the words "reasonable accommodation"? For some employers, these words bring to mind paper work and legal compliance. This is understandable, reasonable accommodation is one of the main provisions of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an employer you are required to negotiate an effective reasonable accommodation for known disabilities unless this would cause an undue hardship. But reasonable accommodation isn’t just about the law. It’s also about ensuring that all your employees have what they need to perform effectively, to be productive and to stay on the job.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines reasonable accommodation as:
Though this definition specifies disability, in all likelihood, you as an employer are already providing reasonable accommodations to your employees whether they have disabilities or not. If you have done any of the following, you have provided a reasonable accommodation…
Though we may think of reasonable accommodations in terms of costs and legal compliance, many businesses have come to see accommodations as a return on investment. Return on investment involves both cost and return.
Let’s start by looking at the costs of reasonable accommodations. A recent study by the Job Accommodation Network consisted of interviewing nearly 2,000 employers across a range of sectors and industries. Findings showed that 56% of all workplace accommodations cost nothing. Of the accommodations that did bear a cost, the average cost was about $500 (JAN, 2012).
So the cost of accommodations is often far less than what many employers fear, but what about the return? This survey also showed that employers reported a number of direct and indirect benefits from providing reasonable accommodations.
The employers surveyed indicated the following direct benefits from providing reasonable accommodations:
Other studies have also put a dollar amount on the direct benefits of providing reasonable accommodations. Schwartz, et.al. (2006) found a median direct benefit (e.g., sustained productivity) of $1,000 for accommodations, and a median benefit of $5,500 benefit for indirect benefits (e.g. turnover prevention).
Providing reasonable accommodations can also be a valuable part of the return-to-work process for employees who have acquired a disability. Employees who are accommodated return to work more quickly and reduce their off-work time (Steenstra, et.al., 2006).
So reasonable accommodations are not just about costs; they are about a return on investment. But some employers might be challenged by the practical, everyday issues around providing reasonable accommodations. Here are some ideas to consider.
Managers and supervisors are key players in any interaction around reasonable accommodation. Though HR can establish policies, resources and guidelines, the manager is often the one who ultimately determines the real life effectiveness of the accommodation. In most companies, your accommodation practice will only be as good as the knowledge, support and resources you provide mid-level managers.
When employers think of accommodations, they often think of what is needed for obvious disabilities: screen magnification products, TTY systems or physical workspace modifications. But many of the disabilities needing accommodations are non-obvious: an employee with ADD needs help in structuring his workflow; someone with diabetes needs to step away from the work station for insulin injections; an employee with dyslexia needs text-to-speech software. One of the most common forms of non-obvious disabilities that employers will need to be able to accommodate is that of mental health disabilities. Disabilities such as depression, anxiety disorders or bipolar disorder are far more common in our population and in our workplaces than most employers believe. About a quarter of adults in the U.S. has an episode of a diagnosable mental illness in any given year (Kessler, et.al., 2005). As an employer, your ability to accommodate individuals with these disabilities will become critical to ensuring that these employees can be engaged and productive when working with this disability.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can be an especially valuable resource for finding and sustaining reasonable accommodations to enable the return-to-work for employees with mental health disabilities. For this reason, Aetna has recently established an EAP service for small- to medium-sized businesses that offers return-to-work counseling, on-the-job accommodation suggestions and other resources to help businesses retain and accommodate employees with these disabilities (Aetna, 2004). See the resources section for other ideas about how to accommodate individuals with these disabilities.
When reasonable accommodations must be paid out of each individual manager’s or supervisor’s budget, they have strong disincentives to provide reasonable accommodations. Hence, companies such as Microsoft and IBM have created a centralized office to fund reasonable accommodations throughout the company. This centralized office has the advantage of both providing expertise on types of reasonable accommodations, and is geared up to identify the latest and best forms of assistive technology for accommodations in the workplace. Finally, an accommodation resource center enables the organization to take advantage of the financial incentives available for reasonable accommodations. Each of these tasks may be too time-consuming for managers to learn and implement on their own. So it saves the organization time and money to implement these tasks centrally.
Some employers have made the mistake of identifying a needed accommodation and then "dropping the ball." After the initial identification of a reasonable accommodation, plan for follow-up check-ins. You may want to consider the following questions:
Over the past decade, much progress has been made in designing effective, low cost assistive technologies for people with a variety of disabilities. To find out more about what options might be available, The Job Accommodation Network has developed SOAR (Searchable Online Accommodation Resource) a free search tool to help employers identify assistive technology options for different types of disabilities. To use this tool, go to http://www.jan.wvu.edu/soar.
Whenever an employee discloses that they have a disability, the employer is put on notice that an accommodation dialogue is needed. Some employers have made the mistake of believing they are not responsible for providing accommodations unless the employee goes through their internal HR process to request a reasonable accommodation. If you have an internal process to for reasonable accommodations, be sure that you are able to detect and act upon accommodation requests whether or not they have completed any accommodation process established within your organization.
Sometimes workplace climate issues can be a challenge for a variety of reasons. Consider the following:
Having a pro-active approach to reasonable accommodations may be the best approach to preventing these issues. When all employees understand that accommodations are not special treatment, but are part of a broader organizational strategy to ensure that all employees fully engaged, co-worker resistance to accommodations can be prevented.
Often the simplest accommodations are the most sustainable. Sometimes, accommodations are as simple as providing slight changes in work schedules, using pictures instead of word labels for stocking, or using bricks to raise the height of a desk. Don’t automatically assume that expensive, complex accommodations will be the most powerful.
What goes into considering a reasonable accommodation? This simple set of questions may help you think through what type of reasonable accommodation will be the best fit:
Who should be the expert in determining a reasonable accommodation? Chances are the employee him/herself has the best knowledge of their disability, its future course, and how it might impact the job. These employees have often been living with the disability for many years and understand its impact in any given situation. Any accommodation discussion should begin with their knowledge and expertise about their own disability and about ways to compensate or cope with its impact.
Aetna. (2004). Aetna offers Employee Assistance Program alongside long term disability insurance plans. Retrieved July 27, 2006, from http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20060524005825/en/Aetna-Offers-Employee-Assistance-Program-Long-Term
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2002). Enforcement guidance: Reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved august 13, 2012 from http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html
Job Accommodation Network (JAN) 2012. Accommodation and Compliance Series: Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact. Accessed at http://askjan.org/media/lowcosthighimpact.html
Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. (2005) Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. June;62 (6):617-27. Retrieved June 13, 2008 at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-America/index.shtml.
McNaughton, Tamie and Beth Loy. Workplace Accommodations: A Small Investment for a Large Return. A paper presented at the Job Accommodation Webcast June 12, 2007. Retrieved March 31, 2008 at https://askjan.org/media/downloads/LowCostHighImpact.pdf#295,17, Workplace Accommodation: A Small Investment Yields Large Returns
Schartz, H. A., Schartz, K. M., Hendricks, D. J., & Blanck, P. (2006). Workplace accommodations: Empirical study of current employees. Mississippi Law Journal, Spring, 75 Miss. L.J. 9 7, 9 8.