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Ann Marie Geiger recalls the difficulty she had finding a job 30 years ago. After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she spent 18 months searching.
When she arrived in her wheelchair for interviews, she frequently faced disturbing reactions: “awkwardness, shocked expressions, short interviews.”
During her interview at Merck,“They were looking at my ability and not my disability,” she says. “And they were willing to accommodate.”
Geiger, 53, was born with brittle bone disease. She is 3 feet tall and uses a wheelchair.
She was hired as a lab technician at Merck, which manufactures prescription medicines, vaccines and animal health care products. Merck built a ramp to a cold vault where vaccines and testing products are stored, and it provides a “reacher” to help her open the heavy door.
Geiger is given a parking space near her building. “They have installed automatic doors in at least five places for me over the years, when I moved,” she says.
She currently is a change control specialist who provides technical and compliance support. It’s primarily a desk job, with much work done at the computer.
An “insightful manager” offered more accommodations as part of a department move.“She did an ergonomic assessment, which resulted in a larger cubicle for me to maneuver my wheelchair around. That also resulted in my getting a fantastic electronically adjustable desk,” Geiger says.
She has requested other minor accommodations. She asked to keep frequently needed files at her cubicle instead of in a storage space that required more time and effort to reach. And she asked for her own printer because the shared network printer was too high.
“Besides the obvious physical challenges, I’m hearing-impaired, which actually impacts my life more than the wheelchair,” she says. She can’t use computer headphones with her hearing aids. So, she asked for and received an assistive-listening device to loop around her neck and amplify the sound from a computer training video without disturbing her co-workers.
“All these accommodations allow me to focus on my job and not waste energy on physical challenges,” she says.
The listening device costs about $300, and adjustable desks can range from $700 to $1,500, according to Nora Vele, Merck’s equal employment opportunity compliance leader. In the past year, the average cost for fulfilling an accommodation request has been about $300, she says. Two-thirds of the requests were for flexible work arrangements and reassignment of tasks with no associated costs.
Electronic door openers are more costly, beginning at about $2,200, according to several provider websites. But they are a convenience for all employees, not just those who use wheelchairs, Vele says.
Merck co-funded development of a disability etiquette guide to help ease any awkwardness in engaging with colleagues with disabilities. An online tool guides managers in creating an inclusive environment and provides tips for when they receive an accommodation request.
“Once a company has successfully recruited people with disabilities, the next step is to ensure full inclusion in their workforce and workplace by providing supportive, productive and flexible work environment solutions for employees with both nonapparent and visible disabilities,” Vele says. “You have to create an infrastructure that provides employees with support so they know where to go if there is a need.”
Geiger urges employers not to make assumptions about people. “Look for the ability of a person,” she says. “Having a disability often makes one stronger, more flexible and more determined to meet challenges.”
The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.
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