The Manager’s Practical Guide to Handling an Employee Newly Diagnosed With a Disability
Most disabilities are acquired, not congenital. Helping employees adjust to having a disability is not just a kindness; it is legally required.
This is part 1 of a three-part series. Part two will be on the interactive process.
This article is not legal advice. But these three things uniquely qualify me to provide actionable suggestions:
- I’ve been an employee with existing and new disabilities, both visible and invisible.
- I have managed many employees with existing and new disabilities, both visible and invisible.
- I have worked exclusively in disability and digital accessibility for the past 15 years, including providing advice to co-workers and recommending changes to reasonable accommodations programs.
Please note that I use US-centric terms in this article because that’s where my experience lies. A reasonable accommodation in the US might be an adjustment in the UK and a modification in India. In the end, the central concept is that whatever you call it, what I call a reasonable accommodation is “something that you can’t do at your job due to your disability that you CAN do if the requested change is granted.” Also, the change being requested must be reasonable. More on that in a later article.
Part 1: The disclosure and initial response
1. DON’T judge. 2. DO be supportive.
You might think that what the employee is telling you they are experiencing doesn’t qualify as a disability. Doesn’t matter. This attitude is ableist and frankly unacceptable. At the end of the day, the only two things the employee will remember about the accommodations process are 1) the supervisor’s initial reaction; and 2) How many hoops they had to jump through to get the requested accommodation.
Don’t set this entire process off down the wrong path by reacting badly when the employee discloses the disability. Trust me; it is hard enough for the employee to tell you this personal and profoundly impactful disability information (been there, done that, both sides of the conversation) that they’ve probably been dealing with for a while. Not taking the employee seriously can permanently destroy your relationship with them not to mention, get your employer into legal hot water.
- In the US, the most common definition of a disability used in the workplace is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
- Major life activities include manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and interacting.
- To qualify for a reasonable accommodation in the US, the disability needs to link to the employee’s job activities.
The employer is required to provide accommodations once they hit fifteen employees IF providing the accommodation is not an undue hardship. Undue hardship will be discussed in detail in Part 2.
- Addiction of almost any kind can be considered a disability at work.
- Invisible disabilities, including mental health conditions, can be considered a disability at work.
- Obesity can be considered a disability at work.
- PTSD can be considered a disability at work.
- Sleep apnea can be considered a disability at work. Sure it happens away from work. But how many of you work at your best when you don’t get a full night’s sleep night after night?
The only valid question is does the medical condition substantially limit a major life activity of the employee.
TL;DR: It doesn’t matter if your Aunt Velma says she has fibromyalgia and you think she’s a drama queen, or you had an ACL tear and didn’t find it disabling, if an employee comes to you and says they have fibromyalgia or an ACL tear and they are finding it disabling, you had better believe it and act on it.
The EEOC frowns heavily on organizations and supervisors who do not enter into the “interactive process” — that is, evaluating the content of the accommodations request and not rejecting the employee out of hand because you don’t think the condition rises to a disability.
Like race, gender, or any other underrepresented minority, DON’T discount the lived experience of people with disabilities!
Bonus Points: The first sentence out of the supervisor’s mouth should be some flavor of “I’m so sorry, let me know what I can do to help,” followed by offering to engage HR, benefits, or other organizations that can help. I once sent my boss a text from the emergency room saying I had broken my foot badly (about the 20th time that had happened), and they were considering amputation. His response was, “Don’t come back until you are ready. I will sort everything out, let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” That is how you create loyalty with employees with disabilities.
Step 2 — Only ask for the paperwork that you are legally entitled to AND need
Dealing with a new or long-standing but worsening condition is beyond stressful. In the US, it can also be costly in both time and money.
Companies governed by the EEOC are NOT allowed to ask for medical documentation to prove obvious conditions. They are also not allowed to require annual updates/recertifications for conditions that are considered permanent. I am a wheelchair user with an insulin pump. These visible devices are with me all of the time. Unfortunately, I am not likely to experience cures for either of these conditions, which I have had for decades. Therefore, I am not obligated to spend my money and time seeking written proof of these conditions if I ask for accommodations related to them. They are visibly obvious; my employers generally have gone with what I have told them.
If, on the other hand, I start to develop clinical depression or a nerve problem that is NOT visible, my employer is entitled to ask me for documentation proving those conditions IF I ask for new accommodations related to the invisible conditions.
TL;DR: Many organizations’ first steps after receiving an accommodations request are to ask for medical paperwork and a doctor’s note explicitly recommending the requested accommodations. That is expensive and time consuming for the employee to get. It increases the employee’s stress and will likely lead to employee disengagement. If the employee knows more about their accommodations rights than the employer does, that is extremely worrisome to the employee. Managers: 1) Only ask for what you need. 2) Don’t be afraid to challenge HR, frequently they don’t get it right and just because it is written in some internal guidebook does not mean it is legal.
Bonus points: If the disability is invisible, but the accommodation is minor, don’t ask for medical paperwork even though you can legally do so. Say, for example, you have an employee who says they are color blind and need a pair of enChroma glasses to assist them distinguishing between red and green in charts they review as part of their job. They are around $300, and can only benefit people who are color blind. Why do you need medical proof that the employee is color blind? The short answer is, you don’t. If you don’t trust the employee far enough to tell the truth about a tiny accommodation they say they need, why did you hire them in the first place?
More bonus points: Create a catalog of accommodations that are automatically granted. Some examples that you would include in this catalog might include (but certainly aren’t limited to) enChroma glasses, alternative input devices, magnification software, etc. These are all relatively inexpensive, and the process of the employee requesting, then HR reviewing and approving, then IT buying each of these things individually on a repeated basis at larger companies is WAY more than the cost of what is being requested.
Super duper extra bonus points: Centralize your accommodations budgeting. You don’t want one manager saying “yes” for the enChroma glasses and another in a different department saying “no” because they are under budget pressure in the second department. That creates inconsistencies that generate all kinds of trouble with the EEOC if the employee you said no to files a complaint.
How do you figure out how much money to put in the budget?
- Identify your disabled employee self-identification rate by percentage of employees. If you don’t know, use 3 % as a middle-of-the-road figure.
- Multiply the self-identification rate by the number of employees. That tells you how many disabled employees you have. Note: the 9th circuit which includes California as its most populous state requires that companies provide reasonable accommodations to contractors as well.
- Multiply the number of estimated employees with disabilities by $400. That is the high side of average for most accommodations requests.
- Divide by 4. This computation accounts for the average that only 25 % of your employees are likely to ask for an accommodation that requires spending money in any given year.
- Attribute the total number per capita across all departments. Take the money off the top of the budget, just like you would for training or other employee-related benefits, and put that money in a cost center that can be accessed by any manager for reasonable accommodation related purchases.
Thanks for reading this far, Part 2 of this series will focus on how to have a conversation with your employees about what accommodations they need, and how to measure whether they are working. In the US this is called the interactive process.