Accommodating Disabled Colleagues in Your Workforce

Michael J. Fox has had Parkinson’s disease now for more than 20 years.  Look at his successes and failures in that time, and the way society has accepted him. Would you do the same for someone on your staff? Would you embrace them with the kindness, courtesy, and respect that they deserve?

Five months ago, a close friend received his own Parkinson’s diagnosis.  It hit him square, right between the eyes, and he is still trying to accept that he will now be considered disabled for the rest of his life. He sometimes walks with a cane. Many in the industry know him, and when running into colleagues at conferences and sales meetings, he has to make people aware of his condition.  Despite Parkinson’s, he remains an executive at a well known trucking company, is respected by his peers, and serves on the board of several national associations.

Disabled people often do not experience this kind of support from employers. Poor treatment at work can lead to poor work performance, depression, withdrawal, and even suicide. No matter the disability – Parkinson’s, paralysis, blindness, or missing limbs – managers must take action to stop negative treatment of disabled employees.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA is divided into five titles (or sections) that relate to different areas of public life.

  1. Title I (Employment): This title is designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees. A “reasonable accommodation” is a change that accommodates employees with disability without causing the employer “undue hardship” (too much difficulty or expense).
  2. Title II (State and Local Government): This title prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by “public entities,” which are programs, services and activities operated by state and local governments. The public entity must make sure its programs, services and activities are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  3. Title III (Public Accommodations): This title prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Examples of public accommodations include privately-owned, leased or operated facilities like hotels, restaurants, retail merchants, doctor’s offices, golf courses, private schools, day care centers, health clubs, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on. 
  4. Title IV (Telecommunications): This title requires telephone and Internet companies to provide a nationwide system of interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services that allow individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone. This title also requires closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements.  The Federal Communication Commission regulates this title. 
  5. Title V (Miscellaneous Provisions): The final title contains a variety of provisions relating to the ADA as a whole, including its relationship to other laws, state immunity, its impact on insurance providers and benefits, prohibition against retaliation and coercion, illegal use of drugs, and attorney’s fees.  This title also provides a list of certain conditions that are not to be considered as disabilities.

The Golden Rule

Disabled employees can be a valuable resource to your business – as my friend’s employer tells him he is. I know this friend very well.  Because the truth is, the friend I speak of is me.  I don’t allow my disability to define who I am, and I ask that you don’t treat those within your organization any differently than you would want to be treated yourself.

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