Employment Through an ADA Lens

disabled woman in wheelchair enjoying hot drink at homeBy Mary Blake
Senior Manager, Jewish Community Services Career Services

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to prevent discrimination based on disability. Its scope was broad reaching, covering employment, telecommunications, public transportation and other public facilities. It made a big impact on my career as I have spent the last 20 plus years helping people find work. Many of those people also happened to have a disability.

Although the ADA was amended in 2008, the intent remained the same. Many individuals with disabilities had doors opened for them that otherwise might have remained closed. What both employers and potential employees have discovered is how simple some accommodations in the workplace could be.

How many of us wish we were taller to reach the highest shelf at work or stronger to lift the many boxes that get in our way? Maybe we wish we didn’t need to wear glasses to see well, or need to turn up the volume on the phone to hear our messages? At some point in our lives, most of us will need some sort of “accommodation” to make our lives easier and to succeed at work. Imagine how difficult life could be if no lenses or surgery could make your vision clear again.

For many, this is the reality. Yet the desire to be productive, independent, contributing members of society remains strong. Thanks to many organizations such as Jewish Community Services, the Maryland State Department of Rehabilitation Services, Maryland Works and Baltimore Mental Health Systems, just to name a few, many people have reached this goal.

Most may think that organizations like these exist to help the individual with the disability, but they also are there as resources for employers. For example, small and mid-size employers cannot afford a cadre of human resource professionals and lawyers to help interpret the laws and make sense of what is their responsibility in hiring persons with barriers to employment.

The idea of even considering someone who cannot function like the rest of the employees can seem overwhelming and frightening. The reality is you probably already make accommodations and don’t even think about it. How many employees modify their work hours to ensure their children are cared for or that rush hour is more tolerable? Allowing employees to do some or all of their work from home, may benefit the company, saving on overhead costs.

These same accommodations would also work for someone who needs dialysis treatments several times a week or who relies on limited public transportation. In ADA-speak, these would be called “reasonable accommodations” and many of us already make use of them, disability or not.

Another one of my favorite phrases in the ADA is “essential functions of the job,” which basically means the main purpose and duties of the position. For example, an Administrative Assistant’s main duties might be to type correspondence, answer the phones, enter data and take minutes at meetings. But what if the paper in the copier needed filling and the box was too heavy for the person to lift? Would you fire someone who could not do that small, insignificant part of their job? Or, would you just ask a co-worker to help, as many of us do?

You would be amazed at the number of individuals not considered for a job because they cannot do every single task listed on the five-page job description. But at any time any one of us could develop back problems and be in this same position – scary, isn’t it?
There are many resources to help make the process of finding accommodations in the workplace easier and less costly, whether required by the ADA or not.

Here are a few of my favorites:
• JAN – Job Accommodation Network, www.askjan.org: You can search by occupation or industry to find common, cost-effective solutions.
• Making Life Easier, www.makinglifeeasier.com: self-explanatory and who doesn’t want to make life easier?!
• LDonline: touted as the world’s greatest website on learning disabilities and ADHD, http://www.ldonline.org has some great, easy to implement solutions that many employees can use.
• America’s Heroes at Work: www.americasheroesatwork.gov, for our heroic returning troops who often come back from battle the worse for wear.
• And yes, the ADA official government website, http://www.askjan.org, which is not at all intimidating and is full of useful information.
• Jewish Community Services’ Career Services offers many resources for employers.

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Filed under Professionals, Social Services, Special Needs, Women

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