Robert T. Kowalski, SunTrust Mortgage Inc., Richmond, Va.

By Dori Meinert Jun 1, 2012
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June CoverElevators are the greatest challenge that Robert T. Kowalski faces daily.

A vice president and business project manager at SunTrust Mortgage Inc. in Richmond, Va., Kowalski says the buttons are too high to reach from his motorized wheelchair. The footrests prevent him from getting close enough, and muscular dystrophy makes it difficult to lift his arms to reach the buttons from the side. Sometimes, he has to wait for someone to get on the elevator and push the buttons.

But he understands that accommodations must be reasonable. “I certainly wouldn’t expect them to gut the elevators. That would be an enormous expense,” Kowalski says.

Instead, Kowalski sometimes uses teleconferencing to participate in meetings with business units on other floors of his six-story building. When he has to meet with someone in the adjacent building, where the entry doors aren’t equippedwith an electronic push panel, he asks security officers to help him enter and move through the building. “That’s another reasonable solution that should be acceptable for all parties,” he says.

Other accommodations provided by SunTrust include a lower desktop, a larger cubicle with room to maneuver his wheelchair, electronic access to the restroom and a laptop so he can work at home on days when his specially equipped van is in the shop. The extra laptop, which he doesn’t have to carry back and forth, has added “an enormous amount of flexibility,” Kowalski says.

Reasonable accommodations are always considered for teammates who request them, says Donna Heath, SunTrust business system analyst. The laptop and desk each cost about $750, Heath says.

SunTrust’s Disabilities Business Resource Teams, also known as employee resource groups, offer employees an opportunity to network and address common issues, she says. The bank’s support for employees with disabilities helps it better accommodate customers with special needs, she says.

Kowalski’s advice to employers: “Don’t necessarily think upfront that any kind of accommodation is going to be so onerous that you make a decision not to hire before you fully explore what is going to be required. … Discuss those things, and be as open as possible.”

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.​

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