How to Prepare Your Workplace for Disabled Employees
When you employ disabled workers, not only do you reap the benefits of a skilled staff, but you also build a diverse workforce and foster a culture of tolerance and respect—qualities that attract top job candidates, partners and customers. Additionally, you will be able to take advantage of a number of programs that encourage businesses to hire disabled employees.
The benefits abound, but it is critical that you know the laws protecting disabled people.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) "makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability," including recruiting and hiring new employees, setting pay and benefits, assigning work, deciding promotions, firing or laying off employees, permitting leave and "other employment activities." In a nutshell, if you employ 15 or more people, many business decisions will need to be compliant with the ADA.
First, it is important that you fully understand what "disability" means. According to the ADA, a person is disabled if he or she "has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity," such as learning, working, seeing, speaking, hearing, breathing, walking, performing manual tasks or taking care of him or herself.
Next, make sure you understand the legal requirements expected of you as an employer. Visit ADA.gov to dig deeper into how the laws affect you in your state. Here is a primer to get you started:
Don't discriminate against anyone because of a disability
This simply means you cannot base your decision to hire, fire or promote an individual on the candidate’s disability. However, this does not mean you are required to hire disabled employees. Any job candidate or employee must be qualified in terms of education, experience, skills, licenses, certifications and any other standards you've set for the job. In addition, the person must be able to perform all the functions of the job "with or without reasonable accommodations" (for example, a construction worker must be able-bodied to perform his or her physical duties).
Make reasonable accommodations
You will need to make changes to your workplace or a specific job so that it allows a disabled person to apply for the position, perform the essential functions of a job and enjoy the same perks and opportunities as employees who are not disabled. Reasonable accommodations include purchasing or modifying equipment, installing ramps for accessibility, adjusting training materials and policies, allowing flexible or modified work schedules as required, etc. Note: You don't need to make accommodations unless you hire or currently employ a disabled worker.
Note: Title III of the ADA requires businesses and nonprofit providers that are public accommodations to comply with basic nondiscrimination requirements set up to prevent the exclusion, segregation or unequal treatment of disabled employees and to comply with architectural standards for buildings.
"Public accommodations are private entities who own, lease, lease to or operate facilities such as restaurants, retail stores, hotels, movie theaters, private schools, convention centers, doctors' offices, homeless shelters, transportation depots, zoos, funeral homes, daycare centers and recreation facilities, including sports stadiums and fitness clubs." If you own your building or retail space, ensure that you are complaint.
Understand ‘undue hardship’
If a modification would be extremely difficult, disruptive or costly, or if it would alter the nature of your business, you are not required to provide reasonable accommodation. However, you must try to find other solutions that will not cause hardship, or you must attempt to offset the costs by taking advantage of federal tax cuts or deductions. You also must allow a disabled employee the opportunity to provide the accommodation or to pay for a portion of it.
Be careful when recruiting
You can't ask applicants if they are disabled or ask about the severity of their disabilities. However, you can ask applicants about their ability to perform a job, as long as you don't phrase your questions in relation to the disability and you ensure that you are asking all applicants the same questions. For example, "Can you lift 50 pounds?" or "Can you type 40 words per minute?” are suitable questions to ask.
In addition, you cannot require applicants to undergo medical examinations before you offer them a job. However, after you extend an offer, you can make the job contingent on the results of a physical or drug test, for example, if you require other employees who do the same job to pass these tests. If you choose not to hire a person based on the examination results, be prepared to prove that the reason you didn't hire him or her was because the examination revealed that the person will be unable to meet the requirements of the job—even after you make reasonable accommodations.
In addition, once you hire someone, you can't make medical examinations mandatory or ask employees about their disabilities unless you can prove that your reason for doing so is job-related. You may conduct voluntary health checkups as part of a health program, but all that information must be kept confidential.
Prepare to modify your workplace
How you modify your workplace to meet the needs of disabled employees depends largely on the employee's disability. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website offers a great deal of information for altering your workplace to suit disabled employees. Go there to search by disability and gain advice for effectively managing each disability. In general, here are a few broad modifications for accommodating the disabled:
- Ramps. For employees using wheelchairs and crutches or those with limited or slowed mobility, ramps are much easier to navigate than stairs.
- Customized phones. Rather than using a one-size-fits-all phone system, purchase phones that meet individual needs. You can find phones on the market with features such as voice-activated speaker phones, automatic dialing, headphone inputs, large buttons and caption capabilities.
- Adjustable desks and tables. Non-adjustable work stations can make it difficult for employees with wheelchairs to work comfortably.
- Organized shelving, filing systems and office equipment. Place items at heights where anyone can access them. In addition, organize shelves so that vision-impaired employees know where to retrieve needed office supplies.
- Tailored computer systems. For the blind and vision-impaired, purchase Braille display devices, which read the screen and present the text in Braille for the user, or screen readers that read the text aloud to users. For employees with mobility impairments, screen and keyboard placement flexibility is often needed so that employees can work comfortably. Other options include providing trackballs, mouth sticks or alternative keyboards.
- Cognitive aids. For employees with learning disabilities, provide information using pictures or diagrams rather than words. Use checklists to guide people through processes. Create templates or forms that allow for easy understanding and integration of information. Record meetings, training and instructions to make it easy for people to recall information.
- Clutter-free common areas. A clean, organized environment is better for everyone; but especially for the mobile- and vision-impaired, it is critical to prevent accidents. For example, while a box of paper on the floor of the copy room may not seem like a big deal, it can be downright dangerous for a blind person.