In the summer of 2015, Katherine McFarlane was preparing to teach at the University of Idaho Law School. This was her first tenure-track teaching position and she wanted to make sure she had everything she needed. So she submitted a request for a keyboard, her tray, and some other office supplies.
McFarlane gave the school’s human resources department a memo written by a doctor about four years ago about his decades-long history of rheumatoid arthritis and recommendations for ergonomic office equipment. She also shared a radiology report detailing joint damage and bone spurs.
it wasn’t good enough. Her request was denied because the document was determined to be out of date, she recalled.
Instead, the agency asked her to submit a new doctor’s note, but the nearest rheumatologist is about an hour and a half away in Spokane, Washington, and it could take months to find one.
“I was panicking,” said McFarlane, 43. “So I pleaded with a rheumatologist I had seen in the past and desperately asked for a letter.”
Her request was approved in August.
Not having an item like a keyboard tray might seem like a minor inconvenience to some, but not to McFarlane or the millions of people living with a disability.of Americans with Disabilities ActEnacted into law in 1990, the law prohibits discrimination against disabled workers and requires employers to provide “non-problematic and reasonable accommodation.”unjust hardship”— difficult term.
In practice, the process of obtaining accommodations in the workplace is often stymied by a myriad of obstacles that deter people with disabilities from asking for it in the first place, experts say.
“There’s a big gap between what the law is intended and the actual experience of employees with disabilities,” said McFarlane, incoming director of the Disability Law and Policy Program at the Syracuse University School of Law.
Experts argue that to be more accommodating to workers with disabilities, employers need to remove outdated barriers such as: Medical documentation requirements and long wait times. Instead, employers should establish policies that are accessible to as many people as possible while remaining flexible and open to improvement.
The goal is to make sure fewer people go through experiences like McFarlane’s and that employers feel empowered rather than intimidated in their efforts to treat workers better.
Less paperwork, more dialogue
Until this month, Amy Gong, 32, worked for Beaming Health, a company for children with disabilities and their families. (Her department was recently discontinued.) She would often ask her team to employ tools like noise-cancelling headphones and note-taking plug-ins, without mentioning that she needed them for her autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“I always try to make conversations fun for everyone, like, ‘I’ve heard about this great thing, or used it at a past job, it might work company-wide,'” said Gong, who lives in a suburb near Los Angeles.
Providing a doctor’s note can be difficult for people who have just moved, are not yet covered by insurance, or have not taken enough paid vacation.
“Employees are hesitant and distrustful of their employers because the process is very awkward and they feel very unsafe and insecure,” said co-founder and CEO Hannah Olson, 27. discrois a company that develops software designed to allow people to ask for accommodations without revealing their disability to their employer.
“The only reason there are documentation standards is because people with disabilities are suspected of lying,” McFarlane said, adding that the Disability Act does not require documentation.
Even if your employer requires documentation, you can accept a variety of evidence, including outdated medical records, and simplify the process by requesting documentation only once.
“Sometimes people need accommodations, sometimes they don’t, or sometimes they do but they need small adjustments,” said Beth Wizendanger, 34, a double amputee and senior manager of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at a New York tech company. “In every conversation, we don’t have to resubmit documents over and over again.”
Employers also need to be more involved in “.interactive process” is a term used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the two sides work together to determine what accommodations are most appropriate and helpful. Regular check-ins are very important.
“Accessibility is a practice”
but what happens rear Will workers request accommodation? It depends on your employer.
Despite legal obligations, employers are often hesitant to upgrade equipment due to the misconception that equipment is expensive and rarely needed. The median one-time lodging cost is about $300. according to a recent survey In a survey by the Job Accommodation Network, about half of employers reported that the accommodation they provided was free. (Many arrangements, such as remote work, also benefit employees without disabilities, including parents.)
What underscores this problem is that many organizations do not have standardized response processes or centralized budgets for it. Company founder Shelby Seier said that in many cases, companies wait to address accessibility until employees ask for it. all kindsis a consulting firm that assesses corporate accessibility.
Saier, 31, who has dysautonomia, a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, says, “Often people come to us reactively rather than proactively. They rush to meet or understand their legal obligations and quickly adapt to employees or groups of employees who identify a need for access.”
There may be more workers with disabilities than employers realize. The median 4.6 percent of U.S. employees are willing to disclose their disability to employers, according to a recent survey. Disability Equality Index Report By Disability:IN, a non-profit organization that advocates for disability inclusion in business. But this is almost certainly well below the total number. global survey According to a survey of about 28,000 employees released in May by the Boston Consulting Group, about 25 percent of employees reported having a disability or medical condition, whether visible or invisible. People with conditions that are not immediately apparent, such as chronic migraine headaches or dyslexia, may find it particularly difficult to seek attention out of fear of being disbelieved.
Another reason for the gap is reluctance to share highly personal medical information with administrators. Some employees with special needs may decide to avoid formal processes altogether.
“It’s just a matter of whether they feel safe to confide in you or not,” says Wiesendanger.
Companies tend to focus more on compliance and risk mitigation than on a “human-centric approach to accessibility,” she noted. To foster a workplace culture that values workers with disabilities, employers can adopt practices such as holding regular implicit bias training, conducting self-verification processes without intrusive questions, and setting up resource groups for employees with disabilities.
“Let’s create an internal affinity group where people with disabilities talk to each other,” said Yvette Peggs, 45, the company’s chief diversity officer. your invisible disability group He is also on the board of Arc, a disability advocacy group.
Other positive practices include encouraging workers to ask for what they need, providing easy-to-understand guides on how to request favors, and constantly re-evaluating policies.
“Accessibility is a practice, not a destination,” Sayer says.