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How Can Offices Make Themselves More Disability Friendly?

Workplace ADADespite having the best intentions, many offices are forced by circumstantial necessity to exclude employees with disabilities. Sometimes, this is more understandable and unavoidable than others.

An office working on highly visual designs, for example, may be considered more ‘justified’ in excluding people with sight issues than an office at the top of a flight of stairs may be in excluding people in wheelchairs. Some disabilities can be accommodated, with adjustments and investment - and tax credits or grants are often available for improving disabled facilities.

However, many offices and workplaces are unaware of what is and what is not possible in this arena. Here, therefore, is a quick guide to disability provisions which offices are able to, are expected to, and cannot make.

Access

Workplaces and public buildings are generally required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with mobility issues. This not only benefits the employees themselves, but also usually benefits the business.

Businesses which are better equipped to utilise the services of disabled employees are able to pool a much broader skill-base than they otherwise would have, and enhanced access also frequently lowers insurance premiums (as the dangers inherent in access difficulties are reduced).

Disabled employees who find it hard to access their workplaces can easily make accommodation requests, although it’s advised that they do so in writing in order to keep a record of proceedings. The Americans With Disabilities Act considers the need to be able to move around comfortably within the workplace an essential requirement, and legislators will look askance at businesses which refuse to do things like install wheelchair access ramps, or allow employees with mobility issues to work somewhere which does not cause them difficulty and discomfort to reach.

However, should employers find making disabled accommodations too expensive or difficult, they are within their rights to refuse, and will be upheld should a court agree that the access request was unreasonable or impossible to carry out.

‘Reasonable Accommodation’

The ADA insists that employers make ‘reasonable accommodations’ to enable disabled employees to do their jobs. However, the definition of ‘reasonable’ is mutable. Some employers have been dragged over the coals for refusing reasonable accommodation requests despite clearly having no resources or ability to fulfil said requests.

Others have gotten away scot free for refusing really quite simple requests, such as back-support cushions or extra toilet breaks. So getting what you need to do your job is often a case of pot luck and how far you’re prepared to push it.

The Act defines a ‘reasonable accommodation’ as something essential for the employee to carry out their job without undue discomfort. So, if you have vision problems, it is ‘reasonable’ to request Braille materials, but may not be ‘reasonable’ to ask for extra coffee breaks. If your chair is uncomfortable, but not actually impeding your ability to do your job, the ADA will not support you in requesting a comfier seat. If, however, you have a postural condition which requires a more ergonomic chair design, the ADA will be on your side should you request one.

What Accommodations May An Employee Request?

The kinds of things a disabled employee may need to do their job varies enormously depending on the nature of their disability. The ADA therefore does not define any particular accommodations. However, some common requests are as follows:

  • Enhanced mobility provisions - i.e. wheelchair ramps, elevators, and so on.
  • Braille materials and signs for the visually impaired.
  • Sign language interpreters for the hard of hearing.
  • Hearing loops for those with hearing aids.
  • Allergy-free cafeteria options for those with allergies.
  • Extra toilet breaks, or a workstation close to a toilet for those who may need to use the toilet more frequently.
  • Ergonomic office furniture for employees with postural problems.
  • Staff training, or alterations in office culture to promote understanding of disabilities and enable disabled workers to do their jobs in a more conducive environment.
  • Leave given for doctor or hospital appointments.
  • Alterations to job descriptions, to exclude non-essential or impossible functions.
  • Flexible hours, enabling employees to work on ‘good’ days and rest on ‘bad’ days.

Not all of these will necessarily be ‘reasonable’ or even possible, depending on the context of both employer and employee. If you have made a request and you feel it has been unfairly refused, you can take it up with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who can help you to take the case further. 

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