Disability Accommodation Benefits Outweigh Costs, Employers Say

By Pamela Babcock Nov 15, 2011

The benefits employers receive from making workplace accommodations for workers with disabilities outweigh any associated costs, according to employers who have contacted the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for assistance.

JAN, an organization run by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, is based at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown. It provides employers and individuals with free consulting services about the accommodation process, accommodation ideas, vendors, referral to other resources and compliance assistance regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to JAN’s research, which began in January 2004 and includes telephone responses from 1,785 U.S.-based employers who have used JAN’s services:

  • Most employers (82 percent) say they want to provide accommodations so they can retain or promote a valued and qualified employee.
  • Employees requesting accommodations have been with their companies an average of seven years, earn an average annual salary of $49,500 ($14 an hour if an hourly employee) and tend to be fairly well-educated (45 percent had a college degree or higher).
  • More than half of accommodations (56 percent) were made at no cost to the employer. Thirty-eight percent of accommodations resulted in an average one-time cost of $500. Just 4 percent of respondents said an employee’s accommodation resulted in an annual cost, while 2 percent said accommodations required one-time and annual costs.
  • More than three-quarters of respondents said the accommodations were “very effective” or “extremely effective.”

In cases where accommodations were not provided, employers said this was because they lacked information about the kinds of medical documentation they could request, had difficulty determining the essential functions of a position or could not agree with the employee on accommodation options, including leave time and reassignment.

Dialogue and Creativity Help

Yet where there is good dialogue between employers and employees, and where managers understand how individuals will complete work tasks, accommodations will be effective, Anne Hirsh, co-director of JAN, told attendees Nov. 3, 2011, at the Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities annual national conference in Morristown, N.J.

Hirsh noted examples of effective accommodations JAN helped to secure:

Purchasing or modifying equipment or products. One employer was persuaded to purchase a portable voice amplifier that cost $150 to accommodate a professor with vocal cord nodules who had difficulty speaking loudly enough to be heard in the classroom or during faculty meetings. This accommodation suited the professor’s teaching style, because he prefers to move around while he lectures and did not want to stand at a podium with a microphone.

Hirsh said JAN frequently hears from teachers about this kind of issue, particularly when a school system’s response is, “Sorry, I’m not required to purchase you a personal use item—that’s like me buying your eyeglasses or a hearing aid.” Yet a union representative convinced the employer that an amplifier wasn’t a personal use item because the professor doesn’t use his voice in the classroom the same way he does when he’s not at work. In the end, the employer reported that the accommodation improved the employee’s job performance “and made it easier for others to work for him,” Hirsh said.

Making the worksite accessible. When a purchasing clerk at a manufacturing plant had to have one of his legs amputated as a result of diabetes and found it difficult to walk from the parking lot to his workstation, his employer gave him a reserved spot close to the worksite.

Hirsh said parking issues rank among the 10 most contentious accommodation-related discussions JAN encounters. Many callers ask whether such an accommodation is required if an employer doesn’t provide parking for employees in general, for example. “There are some districts where you may need to consider it,” Hirsh said, adding, “It would be rare.”

Hirsh noted that representatives from physical plant, security and technology are not usually included in overall company discussions about accommodation policies but should be in order to make it easier for employers to anticipate and address individual requests.

Job restructuring, modifying schedule and allowing leave time. Hirsh said that an accommodation doesn’t have to have a direct connection to the essential functions of the job but can be “related to other aspects of employment,” such as a flexible schedule. This was an ideal solution for a blind state employee who was often late because of public transportation delays, she explained.

Modifying policies. A federal agency employee with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder worked at home under the agency’s telework program until a new supervisor decided to discontinue the program. This meant that the employee had difficulty staying on task. The employer and employee compromised by allowing the employee to work from home two days a week.

Hirsh said “one of the biggest red flags” JAN hears about is the elimination of an accommodation because of a supervisory change. Sometimes that’s because an accommodation was implemented informally, she explained. The solution, she said, is to “make sure there is communication and monitoring” of the organization’s accommodation policy and practice.

Providing readers and interpreters. An applicant for a city government dog warden position, who had dyslexia and therefore couldn’t pass a required written test, was provided a reader for testing purposes. Hirsh said one of the biggest hurdles for people with learning disabilities is that they fail to get the documentation they need. “We often hear from employers who say, ‘We were willing [to consider an accommodation], but we just couldn’t get any documentation,’ ” Hirsh said.

Reassignment. Hirsh said one of her favorite success stories is that of a retired Army medic with post-traumatic stress disorder who thought she had found her “dream job” as a nurse. She contacted JAN for advice when she had difficulty managing stress caused by the sound of the helicopter at the hospital where she worked. She subsequently spoke with her employer and was reassigned to a vacant position in a unit located far from the helipad.

Employers—and individuals—can contact JAN for free assistance by calling (800) 526-7234 or by visiting www.askjan.org.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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