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Taking an Equity Approach to Workplace Accommodations

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). In recognition of this important month, we wanted to take the time to demystify one of the most common things that is spoken about when talking about disability employment: accommodations.

Autism and Disability

At auticon, the majority of our employees are on the autism spectrum. Legally, autism is a disability that makes autistic people eligible for workplace accommodations. Some autistic people feel that autism is disabling for them all the time, while others feel that societal barriers like stigma and inaccessible environments are what disable them from thriving in work and life. We’ve found that when these barriers are removed in the workplace, autistic employees can be themselves, experience improved well-being, and work to their full potential.

Workplace Accommodations: The Traditional Approach

First, let’s look at what accommodations are. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process. These modifications enable an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job, but successfully perform their job tasks to the same extent as people without disabilities.” This is a great definition but is a little ambiguous and a little unapproachable.

When someone who is disabled gets hired at a job, legally they are entitled to these reasonable accommodations. What typically happens is the individual talks to their manager or HR department, discloses their disability and/or needs, and then goes through a legal process of requesting, approving, and maintaining reasonable accommodations. Doesn’t this sound like a long and tedious process? It is, and it’s a huge reason why so many disabled people do not disclose their disabilities or request accommodations in the workplace. It’s also a major reason why many employers are hesitant about hiring disabled workers (yes, we know that’s illegal, but we also know it happens).

This process also singles out the employee and puts the responsibility fully on them to understand, communicate, and advocate for their needs, which can be very difficult and scary to do. Instead, what if employers took a different approach that started with their own policies and culture? When an employer acknowledges that all workers have different needs and makes simple adjustments for each person as needed, everyone benefits without being singled out. As you’ll see below, many of these adjustments are similar to what workplaces already do all the time.

Equity and Culture Change: A New Approach to Accommodations

Let’s talk about what accommodations could (and should) be. This year’s NDEAM theme is Disability: Part of the Equity Equation, and the use of the word equity there is very important. The traditional way of requesting accommodations is not equitable because it’s not accessible for many people, including those who are disabled but lack a formal diagnosis, who have too much anxiety to approach their workplace about getting these accommodations, who aren’t educated on what is considered reasonable and what isn’t, and for people who don’t know that they could benefit from an accommodation, to just name a few.

A better way is to have a workplace culture that prioritizes taking the time to understand each person’s needs and working towards accommodating everyone equally. Think about accommodations as adjustments that all employees can make in their workplace so that the environment is better suited to them. For example:

  • Maybe you have some employees that use a standing desk or a yoga ball chair because that works better for them.
  • Others may prefer to not turn their cameras on during meetings.
  • Others might ask for a recap email after meetings to make sure they get all their to-do’s.
  • Some may have a flex time schedule because they have a long commute, or kids to pick up, or any other reason.

In 2022, these are all very normal things that you will find in most workplaces. Plenty of people who use or request these things are not disabled, and most of these things are free, but they’re all also accommodations.

When talking about autism, these are actually the most common “accommodations” we see here at auticon. To use the same examples:

  • Many autistic people like a specific desk setup to fit their needs—that could include a standing desk or yoga ball chair to make it easier to stim.
  • A lot of autistic people find it stressful to be on camera because it adds an additional social aspect, including eye contact and facial expressions, that can make it hard to focus on the meeting. Because of this, they choose to leave their camera off.
  • Many autistic people struggle to listen and write at the same time or take instructions and tasks verbally because of the way our brains process information, and so having tasks provided in writing is a huge help.
  • A lot of autistic people need more breaks due to intense hyper focus, have set routines that help them with executive functioning, or just work in spurts and may have two days where they do four days of work and then need a less productive day or two to even things out. For all these things, a flexible schedule is helpful.

Toward a More Equitable and Inclusive Workplace

If you’ve ever thought it would be difficult to work with autistic colleagues because of all the accommodations they need, think about these examples. Are they really so hard to implement or really any different than what many other people benefit from? It’s been proven in statistics and from our own clients that working with our autistic staff has improved the quality of work from the team overall. This is because they’ve been able to see how small adjustments can make a big difference, and then they also extend those adjustments to their non-autistic team members as needed. A common request for our autistic consultants is to have tasks and follow-up sent in writing. When this practice was extended to the full team, our clients found fewer things were left undone or overdue, and this was a benefit for the entire team.

We all deserve to work in a workplace that is fit for our needs because it means we will be comfortable, happy, and productive. Employers have the ability to make simple changes that make this possible for all of their employees, both with and without disabilities.

Louise StoneLouise manages recruitment and community partnerships for auticon in the US. Since joining auticon three years ago, she has been at the helm of our autism-friendly recruitment process, leading to the launch of multiple new business markets, the development of a “ready to work” community, and massive growth for the company. Louise is passionate about getting to know each candidate and matching them to client projects, taking into account both technical skill and workplace accommodation needs.

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