Job Accommodation Network Helps Improve Work Conditions for Employees with Disabilities

By Dawn Onley March 10, 2017
Job Accommodation Network Helps Improve Work Conditions for Employees with Disabilities

Tucked away in Morgantown, W.Va., just off the campus of West Virginia University (WVU), is a federal government service with 27 employees who educate private employers on reasonable workplace accommodations and advocate on behalf of people with disabilities and health conditions.  

Each day, the guidance that the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) gives employers and employees changes lives:

A nurse with a hearing impairment who worked the night shift found it difficult to hear the doctors who routinely called her for information. She asked to be reassigned to the day shift since there would be other nurses who could talk to the doctors, but there were no openings. After consulting with JAN, the nurse's employer purchased a $50 telephone amplifier that enabled the nurse to better hear phone conversations—and better perform her job functions.

A pharmacy technician with lymphedema of the arms caused by breast cancer was having difficulty sitting at her desk with her arms extended for long periods of time when completing paperwork. She was accommodated with forearm supports.

JAN is a free service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). It makes research, consultations and training available to individuals, employers, and service providers across the country and around the world. Its work has resulted in some inexpensive but significant breakthroughs for employees in need of accommodations for a wide range of disabilities, impairments and conditions. 

"JAN is one of the best tools in the HR professional's toolbox," said Jennifer Sheehy, deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. "Their confidential consultants can provide guidance on a range of practical accommodation situations and solutions, and contacting them demonstrates a good-faith effort to support employees, including those with age-related disabilities."

[SHRM member-only toolkit: Developing an Accessible Workplace]

Founded in 1983, JAN was the brainchild of employers from mostly large companies who sat on the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. They were looking for a better way to promote the hiring of people with disabilities, said Anne Hirsh, co-director of JAN. The committee later changed its name to the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities

"They recognized a need for employers to get information to make accommodations for workers, to be able to hire people with disabilities," Hirsh said.

JAN covers:

  • One-on-one confidential consultations. JAN counsels employers, individuals with disabilities or health conditions, and rehabilitation professionals/service providers.

Hirsh said that consultation for individuals is often focused on a particular situation, with people typically "either looking for work or having difficulty on the job. Sometimes they are looking to be promoted. We help them become better self-advocates and [learn] what their rights are." JAN also helps employers understand their responsibilities and hire and retain qualified workers and provides guidance and resources for rehabilitation professionals/service providers.

  • Training. JAN offers training online, in-person, and at national and state conferences around the country. It will present a workshop during the Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans in June.

  • Research. Employers and employees who contact JAN are asked to participate in follow-up studies to gauge customer satisfaction and determine whether an accommodation was implemented and if the situation improved.

"What our current study shows is that 58 percent of the time, there is no cost to implementing accommodations," Hirsh said. "There are certainly things that can be costly. But accommodations can also be in the form of a flexible schedule for somebody who takes a medication [and] needs a little more time to get into the office or who takes public transportation for their disability. There can be a number of accommodations."

In its early years, JAN was funded as a pilot project that was initially housed at WVU because there was a rehabilitation center located at the university. The pilot grew into a permanent, taxpayer-funded service under ODEP, Hirsh said. Last year alone, the agency responded to more than 55,000 contacts, and that number has grown each year, Hirsh said.

"We have a great staff who is compassionate and cares about what we're doing here. We feel we make an impact in people's lives and in companies," Hirsh said. "Our bottom line is we want employers to have successful employees doing the work that they need to have done. I do get a lot of good feedback."

Dawn Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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