Accessing Accommodations at Work

This is a two part series exploring the major themes that emerged from Tech Disability Project submissions last year. Read the first post on Disclosing a Disability at Work.

An office lounge area with blue rugs, grey and green chairs and a modern grey couch
Image Description: An office lounge area with blue rugs, grey and green chairs and a modern grey couch by Toa Heftiba via Unsplash

A common misconception about the word “disabled” is that it means “not able” or “less able”. In fact, the word was coined by disability activists to communicate that our population is disabled by the society we live in — not by our brains or bodies.

This concept sheds light on one reason why the disability employment rate is still only 29%. For the most part, the modern workplace has been designed without considering the needs of people working with disabilities. Disability inclusion involves reimagining our workplaces by centering the experiences of disabled employees.

Last year, Tech Disability Project published narratives by tech employees with disabilities who are on the front lines of creating disability inclusion for themselves and for others. For National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2019, we’re exploring the two main themes that emerged from these narratives: Disclosure and Accommodations.

Understanding Accommodations

Every employee with a disability, including chronic and mental illness, has the legal right to access reasonable accommodations at work. A reasonable accommodation is any change to the workplace, job or interview process that allows employees with disabilities to fulfill their professional responsibilities and access equal employment opportunities.

“It was a small ask, but it made a world of difference for me.” — Rachel Branch

Some disabled employees may already know what accommodations they need, particularly those who have experience managing a disability or those whose disabilities present consistently.

For others, the process of identifying accommodations may be a far more creative and complex process. Employees managing chronic or mental illness may need different accommodations over time or on different days. It may take time for folks who are in the process of seeking diagnosis or are newly disabled to determine what kinds of accommodations they need at work.

“Chronic illness is not a one-accommodation-and-you’re-done sort of issue…It adds layers of complexity because my accommodations need to change.” — Liz Allen

The majority of requested accommodations cost the employer nothing (such as the ability to work from home) and the average cost for the remainder of accommodations is only $500.

Accommodations bridge the gap between how disabled employees are expected to work and how we need to work. When we request accommodations, we are not expressing a preference but rather stating what we need in order to perform our duties at the expected level.

“I learned very quickly that when I didn’t need to agonize about looking productive, I got much more done much faster.” — Brianne Benness

The definition of an ideal work environment is different for everyone. Some employees love interacting with coworkers all day in a bustling office, while others need complete quiet and long stretches of personal time to focus. Some people like to work in a bright space while others need to work in the dark.

Not everyone thrives in an office environment; for many of us, remote work makes the most sense for our brains and bodies. At home, we can easily take rest breaks, we have more control over our environment, and we don’t have to spend additional energy commuting.

“At home, I feel empowered and in control of my schedule. Some days I can’t get out of bed, but I can (almost) always grab my laptop and hustle.” — Anonymous

For many of us, asking for accommodations is a difficult process. It may be the first time we are disclosing a disability at work, or the first time we are asking for what we truly need. Discussing private medical information in a professional setting can be emotionally taxing and confusing to navigate, particularly if we are speaking to someone who isn’t treating us with the sensitivity we deserve.

“It’s hard enough to disclose at work; it’s even harder to request accommodations and have them denied.” — Cakelin Marquardt

As meaningful and necessary as this legal protection is for our community, employers must acknowledge that employees with disabilities are required to do extra work in order to have the same access that our nondisabled counterparts have.

To share this labor with us, employers are encouraged to create an easy to navigate accommodations process and advertise it to prospective, new and existing employees. By training managers on the accommodations process, employees with disabilities will have more support when submitting requests. Employers that don’t doubt the validity of accommodation requests can take pride in how many employees they are enabling to do their best work.

“You may think that these types of daily adjustments aren’t afforded to you. If so, I urge you to reconsider.” — Madalyn Rose Parker

Key Takeaways for Employers:

1. Employees with disabilities have a legal right to access reasonable accommodations at work.

2. Determining what accommodations are required may be a creative and continually changing process.

3. Accommodation requests are not expressing a preference but rather a need.

4. Employers can support disabled employees by advertising the accommodations process, training managers and treating requests with integrity.

Natasha Walton writes about Diversity & Inclusion and disability representation. She founded Tech Disability Project and you can follow her work on Instagram.

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Stories by people who work in tech and experience illness, injury or disability — whether temporary or chronic, visible or invisible.

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Natasha Walton

Natasha Walton

Diversity + Inclusion in Denver

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