All employees need the right tools and work environment to effectively perform their jobs. Similarly, people with disabilities may need workplace adjustments, or accommodations, to maximize their productivity. Having a clear process for requesting and providing accommodations is an easy step small businesses can take to send a clear signal about their commitment to a disability-inclusive workforce.
Whether they realize it or not, accommodations are something most employers provide—to employees both with and without disabilities—every day. They span the tangible, such as certain technologies or special chairs or desks, to the non-tangible, such as a flexible schedule or the opportunity to telecommute. Regardless, most accommodations are no or low cost, while yielding considerable direct and indirect benefits through increased retention and productivity.
Want to Learn More?
The following resources can help small businesses learn more about workplace accommodations for people with disabilities:
- Job Accommodation Network (JAN):
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Small Employers and Reasonable Accommodations
- Disability.gov: Accommodations and Supports on the Job
A fast food franchise in Chicago has found that a simple accommodation—a printed, picture-based “special needs” menu originally developed for customers with disabilities—helps interns with learning disabilities process orders more efficiently because they don’t need to memorize all menu options. Managers simply allow the students to keep the menu nearby while working the cash register. The restaurants provide internships for students with disabilities through an innovative partnership with the Youth Connection Charter School.
In summer 2013, a National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) affiliate in California hired two interns with disabilities. This was the first time the chamber, which doubled its staff with the addition of the two interns, had any employees with disabilities, and they found accommodations to be easier than expected. Desk layout was rearranged to create ease of movement for one of the interns who used a wheelchair.
If you go see a movie at The Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut, you’ll find numerous employees with disabilities ready to serve you. An innovative program there is helping people with disabilities gain work skills—while helping the theater gain skilled workers. More than 60 percent of the theater’s staff are people with disabilities. And the theater has trained its workers—who serve popcorn, make drinks and greet patrons as ushers—using a specialized process so they are better able to master their tasks. For example, depending on the learner, one can be trained to operate the popcorn maker in numerous ways, such as reading an instructional comic strip or viewing a video.
Volk Packaging Corporation, a third generation family-owned corrugated box plant based in Biddeford, Maine, never set out to be an employer of people with disabilities. However, Volk’s inclusive workplace culture has led to the company’s employment of numerous people with diverse abilities, including workers who are deaf, blind and on the autism spectrum.
Part of Volk’s approach to inclusion is providing all employees the tools they need to do their job effectively. For employees with disabilities, this can mean reasonable accommodations or adjustments to the work environment. Yet despite common misconceptions about workplace accommodations, Volk has found that most are low cost or no cost, and very easy to implement. For example, Sue, a longtime Volk employee with a hearing impairment, requires no accommodations aside from needing to be alerted by a colleague if and when a fire alarm is ever triggered. Another employee, Peter, works from home, requiring only an enlarged computer monitor to accommodate his visual impairment. Both of these individuals are productive, valued employees who add diverse perspectives to the corporation. “It’s all about knowing what an individual needs to be successful,” says owner Derek Volk.