There are some basic legal requirements and many considerations to take into account when working as a disabled person or employing people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment settings against qualified individuals with disabilities. This act also makes discrimination illegal against disabled individuals in state and local government services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications.
However, hiring employees with disabilities can be a tricky endeavor for employers, and many disabled people don’t realize all of the employment rights they actually have until it’s too late. Disabilities can be permanent or temporary, visible or invisible, and severe or minor. Although many people with disabilities have the skills required to be successful in the workplace, they are frequently under-employed and under-valued.
According to HR Daily Advisor, these are some of the common issues associated with hiring and managing employees with disabilities under the ADA:
- Assuming that a claimed disability is covered by the ADA
- Failing to document claims of denied accommodation and reasonable attempts at accommodation
- Reassigning duties as permanent when they could be just temporary
- Not engaging all employees to work as a team to establish accommodation
- Hiring employees with disabilities out of compassion if they’re not qualified
- Placing an unnecessary emphasis on punctuality if hours can be flexible
So to clear up the misconceptions about relations and expectations between employers and employees with disabilities, let’s take a closer look at the rights, safety precautions, and resources that enable everyone to efficiently do their jobs.
Employee Rights and Laws
The ultimate goal of the ADA is to break down societal barriers and give all Americans equal rights regardless of disabilities, much in the way that equal rights are extended to individuals regardless of race, religion, gender, age, and national origin. Employee rights and laws in the U.S. are largely governed by the ADA, and several government entities are entrusted to ensure the act’s protections extend to the appropriate parties.
Since 1994, employers with 15 or more employees have been subject to ADA requirements, including private companies, state and local governments, labor unions, and employment agencies. This coverage extends to a wide range of long-term and permanent conditions including vision loss, hearing loss, limb impairment, and mental disabilities.
Temporary conditions that will naturally go away on their own and have no long-term impacts are typically not covered under the act. These types of injuries and illnesses are more likely to be covered under workers’ compensation or other disability benefits instead.
These are some of the employment practices and activities covered under the ADA:
- Job application procedures
- Hiring and firing
- Fringe benefits
- Medical leave
What many people don’t know is that ADA coverage comes into play regarding alcohol and drug use as well. The ADA protects people who suffer from alcoholism and considers it to be a qualifying disability. Employers cannot terminate a worker’s employment simply due to alcoholism; however, they can fire employees for not performing adequately on the job or meeting common standards resulting from alcohol use. Workers who are currently using illegal drugs are not covered under the ADA; however, people who have stopped using them and are at least in the process of completing a rehab treatment program are protected by the act.
Disabled Employee Rights
Under the ADA, employees have the right to be free from discrimination due to a major impairment. The law defines relevant impairments as ones that significantly restrict major life activities like hearing, seeing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning, or working.
There are generally a few ways that a disabled worker can quality for protection under the ADA:
- He/she suffers from a physical or mental impairment that limits a major part of daily life
- He/she has history of impairment that is documented in medical records
- The employer perceives the worker to have a qualifying disability, even if he/she does not
The United States Department of Labor has several agencies that help people with disabilities find jobs and help employers follow the required laws while working with these individuals:
- Office of Disability Employment Policy
- Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs
- Employment and Training Administration
- Civil Rights Center, part of Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management
Meanwhile, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can help workers file an employment discrimination charge, help small businesses navigate the laws, and provide resources for training and technical assistance for employees and employers. EEOC field offices are located in cities throughout the U.S., and workers who have been discriminated against could be eligible for hiring, promotion, reinstatement, back pay, reasonable accommodation, and/or reassignment.
Employees must file a discrimination charge before they are able to file a lawsuit. Federal employees and job applicants have protections against disability discrimination, but they must follow a different complaint process.
Employers are not required to give preference to job applicants with disabilities over applicants who do not have disabilities. Whether disabled or not, employees must meet certain qualification standards, which can include but are not limited to the following:
- Possess specific training
- Possess specific licenses or certificates
- Possess certain physical or mental abilities, such as requirements for vision, hearing, lifting, agility, or judgment)
- Meeting health or safety requirements
- Able to work with other people
- Able to work under pressure
It is the responsibility of the employer to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. There are no official request forms that exist under the ADA, so employers and employees should engage in open and informal discussions about the nature of accommodations requested and how to best incorporate them into the workplace.
Examples of accommodations for disabled workers include the following:
- Lowering a desktop height for a wheelchair user
- Providing special telephone equipment for a hearing-impaired worker
- Allowing a vision-assistance dog into the workspace for a blind worker
- Modified and flexible work schedule for a worker with mobility challenges
- Accessible parking spaces
Essential Safety Precautions
Health and safety precautions are important in any workplace, but they become even more crucial when employees with disabilities are involved. Disabled employees must be prepared for fires, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, and employers must provide reasonable accommodations to protect them from harm.
Safety Challenges for Disabled Workers and Employers
Employers are often concerned with controlling their experienced modification rates (EMR), which correlate to the amount of insurance a company must pay and how much insurance companies will reimburse for damages. This leads many employers to put disabled workers on restricted duty programs to limit the risk involved.
These are some of the most common safety challenges for disabled workers:
- Increased injury and illness
- A need for increased safety training
- Inaccessible access points
- Exposure to chemical and physical agents
- Hazard community training
- Heavy machinery safety
- Warning systems and alarms
- Workplace violence
Complying with OSHA standards can be a challenge for employers that hire people with disabilities. People with vision impairments, for example, may find it more difficult to avoid potential hazards that do not produce a sound or smell. While those with mental disabilities may find it harder to use their judgment to avoid dangerous situations in the workplace.
Employers should certainly put safety issues into consideration when hiring new employees and promoting employees from within as long as they still act within the law. It is important to not assume that threats exist simply because of an employee’s disability, but rather rely upon solid medical advice to make risk-based decisions.
Employer emergency evacuation plans must always include accommodations for employees with disabilities. To prepare for emergencies, employers should ask new employees if any limitations they have could be problematic with safe evacuation procedures.
Emergency accommodations for disabled workers may include the following:
- Well-marked emergency route signs and alarms in good working condition
- A buddy system among co-workers to assist each other to safety
- Operating phones with TTY and two-way radios to contact emergency services
- Evacuation devices to move people with motor impairments down stairs
- Removal of furniture, supplies, and other obstacles from exit routes
- Strobe lights and vibrating alert devices
- Proper drills and training of evacuation procedures
- Fire safety training
Safety Considerations for Hearing-Impaired Workers
Hearing-impaired workers and the employers that hire them have a unique set of challenges. OSHA has estimated that at least 28 million Americans have some form of hearing loss and outlines safety procedures that meet the needs of this large population.
Employers with hearing-impaired employees need to modify their emergency alerting devices, use TTY and TRS communications systems, and possibly limit use of heavy machinery. Customized tools are needed to properly train hearing-impaired employees, including assisted listening devices, captioned videotapes, computer-assisted note taking, and a qualified sign language interpreter.
Access for All: Helpful Technology
In nearly every industry and work environment, technology is reshaping the way America does business. Disabled workers must be able to utilize technology to do their jobs to advance their careers and benefit the company or organization they work for.
Evolution of Assisted Technology
Not only is technology needed in the normal course of business, it can also put employees of different physical and mental abilities on a more equal playing field. The Technology-Related Assistance of Individuals with Disabilities Act was passed in 1988 and renamed the Assistive Technology Act in 1994 to address these issues.
The Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology works to advance the efforts of people with disabilities through hiring, career success, and advancement. This organization publishes a bimonthly newsletter and hosts speakers to address evolving issues in the field of assisted technology.
Workplace Technologies for the Disabled
Assistive technology (AT) can be used to modify the workplace to adapt to the needs of disabled individuals. Whether employees have visual or hearing impairments, mobility limitations, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, or another type of disability researchers have developed ways to accommodate many different types of people and needs at work.
These are some of the assisted technology innovations that you will frequently find in workplaces today:
- Non-skid mat to stabilize work materials
- Computer keyboard key guard to improve typing accuracy
- Stapler mounted onto a base to enable stapling with one hand
- Audio players and recorders
- Voice recognition programs
- Automatic page turners
- Ramps and grab bars
To keep track of employee details, skills, and special needs all in one place, employers can stay organized with helpful software, like the Pingboard Employee Directory and Org Chart Software. In the modern, tech-savvy workplace, it’s easier than ever to monitor and accommodate the needs of disabled individuals.
Adaptations for the Visually Impaired
Employees who are blind or have serious vision impairments are eligible to become members of Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, now known as Learning Ally, which grants access to a large library of books and training manuals. These are some of the adaptions that can aid visually-impaired employees at work:
- Talking calculator
- Magnifying devices
- Personal electronic navigation aids
- Braille note taker
- Text-to-speech screen readers
Adaptations for the Hearing Impaired
Employees that suffer from serious hearing problems have many options available to them as well to make the workplace a more comfortable and efficient environment. Examples of hearing assistance technology include the following:
- Assisted listening devices
- Text TTY telephones
- Strobe light smoke detectors
- Vibrating pagers
- Open and closed captioning
Adaptations for Wheelchair Users
Mobility issues can create challenges for employees that are otherwise fully functional and productive at work. These are some adaptive technologies to assist wheelchair users in an employment setting:
- Battery-powered scooters
- Accessible ramps
- Swivel seat cushions
- Tables with adjustable heights
- Incline platform lift
Job Search Resources
Fortunately, there are many resources available to disabled job seekers and employers to navigate the tricky world of hiring and management. Often the most challenging parts of the process is knowing where to look for information and who to turn to with questions and concerns. This guide was designed to help you understand the challenges that exist in the workplace for employers and employees build a barrier-free workplace that is accessible to everyone.
Fortunately for job-seekers, there are organizations solely dedicated to helping people with disabilities find sustainable and respectable jobs. Browse through the job listings on the following sites and search for opportunities that match your skill set and your passion.