The question of when and how a person with a disability should request accommodations is often debated, with advice ranging from not doing so at all, to communicating everything before an interview is requested. For a recent college graduate entering the professional workforce for the first time, navigating this process is often tricky and different from past experiences in the educational system. The following tips can help build confidence in advocating for yourself in the workplace, while providing practical advice for how and when accommodations are appropriate.
Know What Works for You
As a college graduate, you have probably had accommodations in place throughout your career as a student. As a part of this experience, you have likely had times where accommodations were efficient and times when they failed to make a positive impact. Perhaps you had times where your accommodation needs were reevaluated, and you were able to provide input into what additional aids or tools you needed to be productive with your studies.
When entering the workforce, it is important to know what accommodations have worked successfully for you in the past, as well as what has been unsuccessful, obtrusive or unnecessary. Since disability impacts everyone differently, there is no universal answer to effective accommodations. Some people with vision related disabilities use screen magnification software such as ZoomText, some may require screen reader technology such as NVDA, while others use a combination of the two and still others are effective with using screen enhancement tools built-in to the digital environment. People with learning disabilities may use software tools such as Kurzweil or Dragon Naturally Speaking, or they may rely on receiving directions in certain formats or multiple formats. Many people who are deaf use American Sign Language (ASL), but not all people who are deaf use sign language to communicate.
Remember, not all effective accommodations are ones that cost money. It is just as crucial to receive accommodations that will promote success in the workplace that are not costly, as it is to have access to tools, interpreters or software that do have an associated cost. For example, a person with a mental health disability may require an adjustment to where their workspace is positioned, a person with a mobility disability may use a service dog, and a person with autism may require directions, the use of checklists or timers.
Regardless, of whether the accommodation has a cost associated with it or not, as an employee, the requirement to request accommodations falls on you; it is not the responsibility of the employer – so, it is essential that you be prepared to explain what accommodations you need and how they impact your ability to perform the essential functions of your job. Even if your employer believes you may need an accommodation, ultimately it is the responsibility of the employee to make the request for accommodations and get the ball rolling.
Understand the Expectations of Your Position
The second step in navigating the workplace accommodations process is understanding the job role you are being asked to fulfill and knowing what is expected from you in terms of productivity and responsibility. Likely this will have been discussed during the interview process, so you are able to request accommodations when you receive your offer using standard human resources procedures. However, once you start your job, it is likely that your understanding of what you will be required to do in your role will grow as you gain exposure through training, hands-on experience and become more familiar with the environment and culture of your workplace.
Once you have started, continue to evaluate what accommodations are effective, what changes have developed as you gain knowledge of your role or increase in competencies and responsibility and communicate those to your employer using the appropriate channels. For example, if your disability requires certain accommodations to promote concentration and you find yourself working in a noisy environment that is preventing concentration on essential tasks, perhaps moving your desk or being given permission to use noise-cancelling headphones may be effective.
Focus accommodation requests on meeting the requirements of the job. Accommodations used at school may or may not necessarily be relevant to your job role. If your new position is inclusive of a training period in a classroom-oriented setting, some classroom accommodations, such as additional time for testing, may be effective in this environment as well. However, if the accommodation is not relevant to your position, then it may not need to be requested. For example, a person hired into a human resources assistant position may or may not have a physical lifting requirement. Alternatively, an accommodation may be required if the person is responsible for arranging chairs and tables in conference rooms for new hire orientation or preparing materials for recruiting events, such as packing up corporate giveaways or printing out and boxing up flyers and handouts for a colleague to take to the event. These are all possible elements of this job role that may require an accommodation, and typically this is an easy accommodation to make. However, if the job role does not have a physical component, then an accommodation for lifting does not need to be requested.
Join the Disability Team Member Network Group
Many companies have team member network groups within their organization that allow an employee to connect with other people who share similar interests. Often referred to as Employee Resource Groups (ERG) or Business Resource Groups (BRG), these groups are typically formed for both the benefit of the employees to network and the employer in helping to address cultural, training and outreach partnership needs within an organization.
Joining and participating in these groups allow you to widen your professional network, connect with people across the organization to identify mentors, and receive guidance in how to approach concerns. For example, if you are deaf or hard of hearing and are having trouble communicating in small team meetings, written agendas outlining meeting topics for you to use to follow along, avoidance of side conversations, or perhaps remote video interpreting services are often effective accommodations. If you are working in a team that has not had a member previously who is deaf, they may have questions or be unsure how to provide accommodations. Connecting with the company’s disability team member network group gives you a resource to help navigate this process. Likely this group has members that are connecting to corporate diversity and inclusion functions. They will be able to assist you in understanding the human resources and accommodations processes within the organization and may be able to support your manager and team members as well.
Educate to Advocate
When facing a situation where you are struggling to gain access to accommodations, remember that sometimes to be a good advocate, you need to educate. While there are companies out there that are Champions in the area of disability employment, inclusion and engagement, there are so many more where hiring people with disabilities is new to them. Remembering to be patient and working with the employer to navigate this process only demonstrates your professionalism and strengthens your skills as an advocate.
If you find yourself in this situation, make your formal accommodation request electronically or in writing. Most companies, even ones that are not well-versed in the area of disability employment, have an official accommodations request procedure established. Ensuring this process is followed can be the difference maker in receiving accommodations.
Explaining how the accommodation is effective and connecting your employer to resources that can answer their questions such as the Job Accommodation Network or your state vocational rehabilitation counselor can open a dialogue in which accommodations are able to be established. Approaching this situation from a team standpoint that is focused on success for both you and the organization will make a difference. In my experience, all it takes is one great employee with a disability to open the doors for others in an organization. I tell all my new employees that I am counting on them to make a difference. All of us with disabilities are on a crusade together, whether by conscious choice or simply by virtue of having a disability, to break down the attitudinal barriers that stand between us and employment. By being a strong self-advocate, being professional, and doing a good job we pave the way for others to join the workforce.