Addressing Disabilities in the Workplace

As an employer, what do you need to know about workers with disabilities? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from discrimination based on a disability. An employer may not discriminate against an employee for a current or previous disability or the appearance of a disability (even if the employer is wrong and the employee is not actually disabled).

What is considered a “disability?”

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. This includes basic tasks (like walking, reading, motor movements and communicating), as well as bodily functions (like functions of the major systems of the body such as the immune system, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions).

If an impairment doesn’t limit a person’s ability to perform an everyday life activity in a significant way, it isn’t protected under the ADA. For more information on whether a specific condition is considered a disability, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) website.

A qualified worker with a disability is one that can perform the essential duties of a job, i.e. those fundamental to the position. You as an employer may not discriminate against qualified workers with disabilities and may need to make some modifications to the job or the workplace to help qualified employees do their work.

Your responsibilities as an employer

First of all, you have a responsibility to keep any medical records and information about an employee’s disability private and stored in a secure file away from other personnel files. The medical conditions of employees, including disabilities, must be kept confidential. It is up to your employees what information they wish to share about their medical conditions with fellow staff, clients or customers.

Employers also must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified workers with disabilities if the employee requests it. This might include some adjustment or modification to their work environment, special tools or available software that help them do their work without discomfort or potential harm or to better navigate the workspace, and so on.

You are not required to make an accommodation that would cause undue hardship to your company due to exorbitant costs or disruptions that would endanger the viability of the organization. According to EEOC statistics, most accommodations cost less than $500, which is quite doable for most businesses.

Communication is key

The most important thing you can do when hiring a new employee or re-introducing an employee who has a newly-acquired disability, is to discuss with them in a non-judgmental way how you can assist them in performing their job. A disabled employee may not want to volunteer that they are having trouble due to fear that you or their fellow employees may think they can’t “pull their own weight.” Let them know that you want to support them in being able to do their job, and if there are changes that could help them function better or be more comfortable, you’d like to know.

If you notice that they are struggling in some area, have a private talk with them to see if together you can come up with a creative solution to work around that issue. You may often discover that changes you make to benefit one employee have benefits to everyone else in the office as well.

[Related: Making New Members of Your Organization Feel Welcomed]

Creating a work environment that is friendly to all abilities

Many employers only consider accommodating disabilities when they are forced to because it is brought to their attention by an employee. But creating an accessible, disability-friendly workplace often has benefits to all your staff. We’ve all had the experience of trying to open a package or bottle that is ridiculously difficult, versus one that was designed for easy opening by those with reduced dexterity. The second one, though initially designed to assist those with disabilities, is easier and less frustrating for everyone.

Creating an accessible workplace is also generally more pleasant and friendly for all workers. Here are some modifications to think about when purchasing tools, planning your office space and more:

Anytime you are considering a renovation or office upgrade, consider accessibility. If you are repaving the parking lot, consider adding a few more wheelchair-accessible spaces. Add a ramp to your front entrance if it has only steps. Renovating the bathroom? Ensure that toilets and sinks are wheelchair accessible. Doing a full office renovation? Talk to your contractor to make sure your office space is fully accessible with wide enough hallways, doors, etc.

Make sure your website and proprietary software are ADA-compliant. Talk to your website developer to see if your website is accessible according to ADA standards. There are a number of simple fixes that can usually be done to any website to make it easier to navigate for those with visual impairment. There are also a number of assistive technologies and software you can invest in for workers that have visual impairment or reduced motor functions that cause them problems with using a keyboard and mouse, etc.

Other considerations. Think about your signage, logos, posters and other documents. Make sure that there is enough color contrast for those with low vision or color blindness and the type is large enough to be readable by those with low vision. Look at your flooring and make sure that thick rugs or other impediments are not making it difficult for those in wheelchairs or walking with a cane or walker.

Above all, talk to and survey your employees about what changes might help them. You may be surprised to find out what workplace issues are causing them trouble until you ask.