That’s a question many employers have asked me and so many others like me, who promote hiring people with disabilities. We’re proponents of October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month through the Department of Labor and of course, February’s Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. These are great months to get the word out and promote the amazing message of empowering people with disabilities in our workplace. But so often, while there’s a lot of energy, what’s sometimes tricky is making the plan work, whether it’s one week, one month, or even one year after you’ve hired someone with a disability.
First of all, take it from me, there’s no immediate, one-size-fits-all answer here. What works for accommodating one employee with a disability could be detrimental for another. When a friend of mine requested assistance with her in-person interview for a job opportunity, the employer kindly shared that they had a wheelchair ramp. She’s Deaf. Yet, she used it as a moment to educate, and she got the job.
What happens when the disability is a bit more intricate to facilitate because the person requesting the accommodation isn’t sure of what she wants? Last year, I wrote for the Jewish Week about “coming out of hiding”, or disclosing a hidden disability at my current job working at Accessibility Partners. My employer, Dana Marlowe, was empathetic, professional, and as she put it, clueless. With a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my daily needs varied. Goodness, sometimes I had to break down my day into granular 15 minute chunks to get through. This was an accommodation, sure, but what really threw us was just how little I knew how to advocate for myself.
There are wonderful resources online, but we experimented with trial and error. While I met with a therapist once a week to discuss what triggered me, I was simultaneously trying to avoid those in my personal and professional life. Which was all fine and good until I realized one of my triggers was trending on social media. At the time, the #NotAllWomen and #NotAllMen dominated my Facebook and Twitter, and as someone who had recently ended a less than ideal relationship, I was bombarded with well-meaning articles about dating violence and memes that made want to cry. Suddenly, my job as a public relations specialist skidded when I came against the roadblock of feeling panicky on Twitter. Here’s where creativity came in—Dana recommended an alternative: a social media tool called HootSuite that became a loading dock for tweets and Facebook posts for the company. I could load up our social media blasts without having to go to the sites that had the triggering content. And, I could schedule them better, and in turn, become more organized.
I had difficult as well being in big social events. A previous extrovert, I suddenly cowered at workplace conferences where networking had previously been a breeze. Technology has been stereotypically male-dominated, and while I’m happy the divide is evening out, I felt uneasy being at times the only woman at a table. Too conspicuous. I knew attendance as these conferences was mandatory for my job and personal development, but I was stricken. So, my co-workers helped me plan a schedule to figure out which sessions to attend in advance, and points during the day to check-in. Having those safety nets certainly made the day easier, and I realized most of my anxiety came from anticipation and not the actual event.
When I said earlier that there’s no immediate fix, that’s true, but having a flexible approach to fail is what’s helpful. I was working on figuring myself out, and Dana was supportive. I think that lesson can apply to workplaces who quite honestly, have no idea what they’re doing. Collaborate, then accommodate. Of course, there’s a limit to how much time and resources (especially money) you can spent, but done wisely, it can be an investment.
I can get a little motivation from the midrash or story of King Solomon saying “Gam zeh ya’avor” or, “This too shall pass”. I know there are countless times when another employer would have thrown up their hands and fired me. I will admit my situation is difficult, and I’d get frustrated with lack of progress. Sometimes there was no answer, just a wait it out and try. Mental health is difficult yes, but not impossible. It costs more to hire and train a new employee than to retain one, and that’s worth noting for disability employment. Take stock of the cumulative days, and not just one bad that needs a little extra push on either end. But, take note of what works too, and dwell on that success.
If I am not for myself, what good am I in the workplace?
Sharon Rosenblatt is an accessibility professional and advocate working to improve the overall web experience by a user with disabilities. With her tendency to be ‘hands on’, Sharon feels that accessibility is a human right, and not a ‘nice to have’. She has been a part of the Accessibility Partners team for the past six years, and specializes in document remediation and web/software compliance testing. Her efforts have enabled developers and manufacturers to see the tremendous potential that accessibility has not just for users with disabilities, but of all abilities.