The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all employers, including government entities, faith-based organizations, and employers in both the public and private sector, provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Offering and asking for accommodations can be complex. It can be hard for some people to ask for accommodations. It can also be hard to receive accommodations in a timely and consistent manner. I interviewed two early career professionals currently participating in RespectAbility’s National Leadership program about their past experiences asking for accommodations.
Depending on who you ask, asking for accommodations can be easy or hard. Some disabled workers feel comfortable asking their employer for accommodations, like Erica Mones, Entertainment and News Media Apprentice. Erica has had very positive experiences with accommodations in the past. She says both of her previous employers have been good about it. However, she notes that her past work experience has been in the social justice space, and that is why she has felt comfortable asking. She thinks that if she were to work somewhere else, such as a customer service job, she would not be as comfortable asking for accommodations. She might even be scared to ask for accommodations there. Other disabled workers, like McKenzie Stribich, Faith Inclusion and Belonging Apprentice, might feel bad about asking for accommodations because they feel like they are a nuisance. She says she feels somewhat comfortable but a little anxious asking employers for accommodations because she feels like she is being annoying by asking for them. In their experience, she said they “[found] it hard to confront bosses” about accommodations not being met.
Both Erica and McKenzie often struggle with not knowing what accommodations to ask for. It sounds counterintuitive that a disabled worker does not know what accommodations they might need. But in reality, it makes sense, and it can be a common occurrence. Even if you have lived with your disability your whole life, every job and every work environment is different. Employees will need different accommodations for different jobs and many workers with disabilities will not know what they need to succeed until they have worked at the job for some time. For workers with disabilities who struggle with not knowing what accommodations they might need, a valuable resource is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Their website has a list of possible accommodations for different disabilities.
Getting the employee’s perspective on accommodations is important, but accommodations in the workplace constitute a two-way street. Graciano Petersen, Senior Director for Training, Culture, and Leadership at RespectAbility, believes it is “100% the responsibility of the employer to make their employees comfortable asking for accommodations.” Employers need to create a safe environment in which employees feel comfortable enough to advocate for their accommodation needs. Employers also need to understand the urgency for accommodations to be met. Graciano states that there are different steps employers need to take that will help create this comfortable space. Regularly talking to employees about disability and letting employees know you can’t assume no one around you doesn’t have a disability just because you don’t see it. Having an employee resource book and doing intense DEIA work are just a few steps.
What is Graciano’s advice for workers with disabilities when asking for accommodations? Ask for accommodations in writing. Save a copy you have easy access to. When asking for accommodations verbally, you run the risk of people forgetting or making assumptions. Plus, if you ever need to follow up on your accommodations, you can refer to the written accommodation request. Another piece of advice: don’t be afraid of HR, in fact, make them your friend. While your direct supervisor is the one who needs to meet your accommodation request, HR is there to help facilitate. If you’re afraid to go to the HR person, find someone else who works in HR that you feel more comfortable opening up to, they can help you as well.
Accommodations in the workplace can be tricky. It starts with the employer and their ability to create a comfortable space where workers with disabilities can ask for accommodations; disabled workers need to advocate for themselves however they can. Graciano said it best, “make sure you are fighting for your ability to do the work.”