When it comes to accommodating disabilities in the workplace, it all starts with the individual.
“Accommodating disabilities really means accommodating individual employees, one by one,” says Alan Cantor, a workplace consultant who specializes in job accommodation. “From a laundry worker with a shoulder injury who needs an extender to pull clothes out of the dryer, to an employee with Asperger’s syndrome who needs to have instructions in writing, no two situations are alike.”
To be ready for these kinds of situations, however, you need to lay the groundwork. Here are four things you need to do to accommodate disabilities in the workplace.
Consult official requirements and guidelines
The Canadian Human Rights Act requires employers to adjust policies and practices to allow full participation. However, legislation in individual provinces (like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in Ontario) set standards for accessibility and require organizations to create policies, provide accessibility training, make information available in specific formats, and more. Individual company policies generally flow out of these standards.
In terms of general accessibility, guidebooks are also available to help employers scan for any potential issues. “It’s also good to do a confidential survey to assess accessibility needs,” said Cantor.
With AODA guidelines coming into law fully by 2021, it’s important to keep technology compliance in mind. “When purchasing or licensing software or web-based apps for employees, ask about accessibility,” said Cantor.
Understand what accommodation can involve
Accommodation can cover a wide range of materials and resources, including assistive devices (such as tablets), alternate formats like braille, customized software, flexible schedules, adapted furniture, and work station modifications (think standing desks). They can also involve a certain amount of creativity, which is where a consultant comes in handy.
“I was working for a deaf accountant, and people were coming to his office and had no way to notify him. I went to Canadian Tire and found a doorbell with a light on it that would flash. A $20 to $30 device solved that,” said Cantor.
Develop your own policies and procedures
Cantor, who started in the field in the 90s after a repetitive stress injury, says that all employers should devise their own policies and procedures when it comes to accommodation. Once those are in place, you need to ensure that you act quickly with each case.
Start by creating an individual plan and assign the task to someone in HR or management who has decision making capacity. It’s important, though, that the employee can have frank, respectful conversations with this person. Make sure to involve the employee in brainstorming accommodations, and don’t just stop at a single solution.
“If they can brainstorm five or six possible accommodations, they’re on the right track,” said Cantor, advising that the accommodation plan should be seen as a process to be revised, and that sometimes several small adjustments add up to something more meaningful.
Cantor believes that a good starting point when accommodating an individual is to ask how they accommodate themselves at home. “I recall a client who had a back issue and trouble sitting or getting out of a chair. She said that her daughter had got her chair wedges at Shopper’s Drug Mart, angling three so she could easily get up. This setup was then replicated at work.”
Plan for employees returning from leave
If a person is returning from leave, an accommodation plan should be created far in advance, with all parties (employee, HR, manager) aware of the issues. Often the return will be gradual in terms of hours and responsibilities. One question that can be helpful to ask is how the employee wants to be welcomed back. Most don’t want fanfare, but a neutral welcome email is usually helpful and appreciated.
After an employee is back at work, check in with them, at first weekly and then monthly.
Simply having a plan, Cantor believes, can go a long way. “Based on my experience, most people would be more than satisfied…they’d be overjoyed.”