Regina Job Search Strategies Forum Report

Disability in the Workplace: Effective Accommodation Planning

Watch streaming video of Kristin Sali

Kristin Sali, Neil Squire Society

The Neil Squire Society is a not-for-profit organization that helps its clients remove obstacles and barriers so they can live independent lives and become active members of society. Kristin Sali assesses an individual’s needs within the workplace, makes recommendations on appropriate and cost-effective technologies and products, and trains individuals in their proper use.

Treating people equally does not always mean treating them the same, said Sali. Human rights legislation in Canada requires employers, unions, and co-workers to accommodate the accessibility needs of people with disabilities. Accommodation is an ongoing process that involves tailoring work or education to meet the needs of an individual, and identifying and removing or minimizing the adverse effects of barriers in the workplace.

Accommodation can take many forms, such as making workplaces and facilities accessible, modifying a work schedule, or reconstructing or redistributing nonessential job functions. It might also necessitate acquiring or modifying equipment, providing qualified support service assistance when required, or changing a job location.

Sali uses a seven-stage model in her employment accommodation work: disclosure; assessment and needs identification; research and equipment trials; recommendations; the undue hardship test; implementation; and follow-up, review and adjustment.

She said disclosure is a person’s choice, and can happen at any point in the employment process, or not at all. It is perfectly acceptable for an applicant or employee never to disclose a disability.

Deciding whether to disclose is a complex issue. Applicants must consider whether their disability will affect their ability to perform their required duties, the nature of the job, their qualifications, and the company and their policies. Choosing to disclose in one instance does not necessitate disclosing in every situation.

There are certain advantages to disclosing a disability, said Sali. Disclosure might give the applicant peace of mind. It also prepares the employer for potential issues, and allows the applicant access to accommodations. Applicants and employees are protected by law from changes in employment as a result of disclosing a disability.

When disclosing a disability, job seekers should be positive and focus on their skills, qualifications, and their ability to do the job. Anticipate any concerns the employer may have, and be prepared to provide information on accommodation resources including their availability and cost, and on funding programs for employers.

A thorough, on-site assessment is crucial to the success of any accommodation plan, said Sali. Such an assessment should consider a wide range of accommodation options. The accommodation specialist should meet the employee to discuss job duties, functional abilities and current accommodations. The specialist should also meet with the supervisor to determine performance expectations for the employee, review the employee’s job description and assess the employee’s work habits, work station set-up, and work environment. Factors such as the demands of the job, the pace of work, and the culture of the workplace should be taken into consideration.

The process of researching accommodation options and equipment follows the assessment. Employees should evaluate the usefulness of special equipment, assistive devices, and workstations under regular working conditions. When working with employers to put together a list of possible accommodations, Sali uses the acronym ADAPTABLE: assistive devices, alternative formats, personal support, transportation services, adaptable furniture, building modifications, low-tech devices, and environmental adaptations.

Assistive devices and alternative formats might include special keyboards or software, Braille or large print documents, or a document holder or talking calculator. An employer might provide a personal care attendant, or special-needs transportation for company events or functions. Adaptations to the building and environment might include desks or workstations to accommodate a wheelchair, ramps or grab-bars in the washrooms, and air purifiers or special office lighting.

The next step in the assessment process is the “undue hardship test.” Undue hardship exists when removing the barriers to employment for an individual would significantly threaten the financial health of the organization, or the physical well-being of others. This test specifies the extent to which parties are responsible for ensuring that a person with a disability is accommodated. The test is measured by cost and health and safety risks, and requires the employer to demonstrate that all avenues for accommodating the individual have been explored and any suitable accommodations would not cause undue hardship.

If undue hardship is not an issue, the employer will need to implement the necessary accommodations. In some cases these measures require the co-operation of others. For instance, if the accommodation plan calls for job sharing, the union and co-workers might need to be included in the negotiations. If the plan includes computer-based assistive devices, the systems personnel should be consulted.

Once the employee is on the job, the final step of the process involves follow-up, review, and adjustment. This step ensures the employee’s needs are being met and that any problems are being addressed. The review might lead to another assessment stage, or more equipment trials. If new accommodation needs are identified, the original plan might need to be revised.

Sali said employers often overestimate the cost of accommodations, assuming that people with disabilities depend on expensive and exotic technical aids. Some accommodations can be practical and very cost-effective: a hearing-impaired laboratory technician might need a $30 indicator light that flashes when a timer sounds; a visually impaired employee might need adhesive-backed Braille labels on all elevator control panels, which cost only $10; and someone who can type with only one hand might need a freeware program that allows the person to enter combination keystrokes sequentially.

Most of the time, the employer will pay for the accommodations, but that should not be a deterrent to hiring a disabled person. There are many sources of funding assistance, including Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, tax credits and incentives, and health insurance benefits. If an accommodation requires a sizable expense for an employer, Sali said the job seeker should learn about the available funding assistance so they can advise the employer of these options. Job seekers might make use of the Job Accommodation Service (JAS), a free Canada-wide service for workplace accommodation solutions.

Sali provided a list of websites where participants could find more information:

  • Diversity and Employment Equity: Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
  • Handling Your Psychiatric Disability in Work and School: Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Boston University
  • The Job Accommodation Service (JAS)
  • Telework and People with Disabilities: InnoVisions Canada