How can employers better support workers with disabilities?

In the summer of 2015, Katherine MacFarlane was preparing to teach at the University of Idaho College of Law. It was her first teaching job on a steady track, and she wanted to make sure she had everything she needed. So I placed an order for a keyboard case and a few other office items.

Ms. McFarlane gives the school’s human resources department a note her doctor wrote about four years ago, describing her decades-long history with rheumatoid arthritis and recommending ergonomic office equipment. She also shared an x-ray report detailing joint damage and bone spurs.

It wasn’t enough: she recalls that her application was rejected because the documents were considered out of date.

Instead, the department wanted her to provide a new doctor’s note—but the nearest rheumatologist was about an hour and a half away, in Spokane, Wash. It may take months before a specialist is available.

“I was terrified,” said Ms. MacFarlane, 43. “So I appealed to a rheumatologist I’d seen in the past and desperately requested a letter.”

In August, her application was approved.

The lack of such an item as a keyboard tray may seem like a minor inconvenience to some, but not to Ms. MacFarlane and the millions of other people with disabilities. the Americans with Disabilities Actwhich became law in 1990, prohibits discrimination against workers with disabilities and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that do not constitute “undue hardship“- difficult term.

In fact, experts say, the process of obtaining accommodations at work is often fraught with innumerable obstacles that discourage people with disabilities from asking for them in the first place.

“There is a huge gap between what the law was supposed to do and what the experience of employees with disabilities really is,” said Ms. MacFarlane, the incoming director of the disability law and policy program at Syracuse University School of Law.

Experts argue that in order to be more accommodating to workers with disabilities, employers need to lift outdated barriers such as Medical documentation requirements And long waiting times. Instead, employers should create policies that are accessible to as many people as possible while being flexible and open to improvements.

The goal is for fewer people to have experiences like Ms. MacFarlane’s, and for employers to feel empowered, rather than intimidated, in their efforts to better accommodate workers.

Until this month, Amy Gong, 32, worked for Beaming Health, a company for children with disabilities and their families. (Her section was recently scrapped.) She’s often successfully requested that her teams adopt gadgets like noise-canceling headphones and note-taking plug-ins, without mentioning that she needs them for autism and ADHD.

said Ms. Gong, who lives in a suburb near Los Angeles.

Providing doctors’ notes can be difficult for those who have just moved, whose insurance may not have kicked in yet or who haven’t had enough paid time off.

said Hannah Olson, 27, co-founder and CEO DisloInc., a company that produces software designed to help people request accommodations without disclosing their disabilities to employers.

“The only reason there are documentation standards is because there is this suspicion that disabled people are lying,” Ms. MacFarlane said, adding that disability laws do not require documentation.

Even if employers insist on documentation, they can streamline the process by accepting a variety of evidence, including old medical records, and requesting the papers only once.

said Beth Wiesendanger, 34, an amputee and senior director of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at a technology company in New York. “Not every conversation should require documents to be resubmitted again.”

Employers should also be more involved in “Interactive process,” a term used by the EEOC, in which the two sides work together to determine the most appropriate and beneficial amenities. Periodic check-in is critical.

But what happens after A worker asking for housing? It depends on the employer.

Despite legal obligations, employers are often reluctant to promote their accommodations due to misconceptions that they are expensive and rarely needed. The average cost of accommodation with one-time expenses is about $300, According to a recent survey through the Workplace Network, and about half of employers report that the accommodation they set up costs nothing. (Many amenities, such as telecommuting, also benefit non-disabled employees, including parents.)

To underscore the problem, many organizations do not have a standardized accommodation process or centralized budget for it; They often wait to process access until an employee submits an application, said Shelby Sayre, the company’s founder all typesa consulting firm that evaluates companies for accessibility.

“We often find that people come to us reactive rather than proactively, striving to accommodate or identify their legal obligations, or to adapt quickly to an employee or group of employees who have identified access needs,” said Ms. Sierre, 31, who has dyskinesia, It is a defect in the autonomic nervous system.

There may be more disabled workers than employers realize. An average rate of 4.6 percent of employees in the United States would like to specify they have disabilities to their employers, according to the latest Equality index report for people with disabilities By Disability: IN, a nonprofit advocating for disability inclusion in businesses. But this almost certainly represents a significant reduction in the total number: In a global survey Of the nearly 28,000 workers published by the Boston Consulting Group in May, about 25 percent of employees reported having a disability or health condition, either visible or invisible. People with conditions that are not immediately obvious, such as chronic migraines or dyslexia, may find it especially difficult to ask for accommodations for fear of not being believed.

Another reason for the gap is the reluctance to share personal medical information with managers. Some employees who may need accommodations decide to avoid the formal process altogether.

“It’s just a matter of whether or not they feel safe or not safe to reveal to you,” Ms Wiesendanger said.

She noted that companies tend to focus on compliance and risk mitigation, rather than a “more human-centered approach to accessibility.” To foster a workplace culture that values ​​workers with disabilities, employers can adopt practices such as hosting regular training sessions on implicit bias, conducting a self-identification process without invasive questions and starting disabled employee resource groups.

said Yvette Pegges, 45, chief diversity officer at Your Invisible Disability Kit and a board member for Arc, a disability advocacy organization.

Other positive practices include encouraging workers to ask what they need, providing easy-to-follow guides on how to request amenities and constantly re-evaluating policies.

“Accessibility is a practice, not a destination,” said Ms. Sayer.