Regina Kelder

In the Workplace: Accommodating Disabled Individuals

On the anniversary of the ADA, a reminder that disabled individuals are part of our diverse workplace, too

For the 40 million Americans living with a disability, the workplace can be difficult to navigate. Even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 31 years ago today, disabled individuals still encounter situations that impede their ability to function.

Thomas, a young man who has struggled with a disability since adolescence, left his job at a pharmacy, because the company ultimately would not accommodate his needs. “They didn’t care that I had a disability,” recalls Thomas. “They didn’t want to work with me.”

At Charles River Laboratories’ Kingston site, where Thomas, shown at right, works as a Technician II, theThomas, a disabled man, with a llama. experience has been much more positive. His confidence has grown and so has his career goals. “I really lucked out,” he said. “Being at Charles River is like a breath of fresh air.”

By law, employers are prohibited from asking anything directly about a disability, so it is on the employee to request any special accommodation. The ADA allows for reasonable modifications or adjustments to a job, work environment or the hiring process. These modifications are intended “to give the disabled equal opportunities for jobs and enable them to successfully perform those jobs to the same extent as people without disabilities,” according to the federal Office of Disability Employment Policy .

The problem is that many disabled individuals do not feel comfortable discussing their conditions with their employers.

Thomas, who has a BA in Environmental Science and an MA in Biology, has a disability that makes it difficult for him to be in enclosed spaces. It manifested when he was a teen-ager and grew progressively worse through college. Ten years ago, he finally had had enough and sought help. But he continued to struggle, even when he first joined Charles River.

“It was hard for me to be a functional part of the team,” says Thomas. “I felt excluded, and I thought I was holding the team back, that I was failing Charles River.”

The Kingston site’s HR Business Partner Eddie Steiger sat down with Thomas and helped develop an accommodation plan to improve Thomas’ workplace situation. “The goal was to find ways to make things reasonably better for Thomas, and to take the stress away,” says Eddie. “Part of that process, of course, was give-and-take.”

Just being listened to constitutes a major leap forward for Thomas, still stinging from his experience at the pharmacy. He and Eddied worked together to create a plan that included, among other things, taking staggered breaks when fewer people were present in the breakroom.

“I have to tell you, Thomas was a champion,” said Eddie. “He was very detailed, very much part of the discussion and in the end, not only was this a 180-degree turn for Thomas, our working relationship grew as well.”

Eddie says the process is all about trust, letting workers know they can come forward with their concerns and that when they do come forward those concerns will be addressed.

In other words, it isn’t enough for companies to change policies that favor flexibility, and allow people with disabilities to function better, they also need to view disabled individuals as part of their diverse workplace rather than a liability.