Sorry it’s been so long between these Career and Disability posts. Live has been a bit out of control lately, and I’m afraid my blog has suffered a bit because of that.
So. I talked a bit about what a person has to do to balance career and disability in my first post, which you can find here.
One of the things I talked about in that post was accomodations. Since I know a lot of my readers aren’t disabled, or don’t have official accomodations, I thought I’d walk you through what the formal, legal accomodation process looks like. I’m saying ‘company’ here, but this process tends to hold true for companies and for schools, though schools are required to do a LOT more accomodating than companies are as a general rule. There are exceptions.* For the record, I’m dealing with what happens under the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States. I’m nowhere near familiar enough with other accomodation systems to write about them, though I understand the kind of push-and-pull negotiations that I’m describing happen under them, too.
So let’s start with the basics. What’s an accomodation? An accomodation is a limitation on what you can be expected to do in either the work or school environment. It is a restructuring in some way that is supposed to make the place accessible to you in an equivalent way as it is for everyone else. Accomodations can be modifications to the structure, location, or the job itself.
As soon as you know you need an accomodation at your job – hopefully before you start work there, but ‘as soon as possible’ is important here – you go to your doctor and you get a set of restrictions written up. The restrictions say exactly what you can and can’t do – for example, for quite a while I had one that said I couldn’t lift more than 35 lbs overhead and more than 50 lbs overall, to protect my bad shoulder. I also had a restriction on how long I was to be placed in a kneeling or crouching position, to protect my knees – I think no more than 15 minutes without 5 minutes of being out of that position. In order to get an official accomodation, my experience is that these restrictions have to be very specific – it can’t just say ‘no heavy lifting’, it needs to say ‘no lifting over X weight’. They also need to say what the company needs to do to accomodate your need, for example ‘requires parking within 100 yards of her office, due to difficulty walking’. The more specific the note from the doctor is, the clearer a guideline it presents to the company you’re getting an accomodation from – an absolutely vital thing. If your note isn’t specific enough, you’ll find yourself bouncing back and forth between the company/school and your doctor. “does this cover it?” “No” “Dr, can you write a note that says X?”
Now, getting this note is not always a walk in the park. Some doctors don’t like writing for accomodations, for a variety of reasons including internalized ableism. I’ve had doctors who refuse to write notes for anything but other doctors and treatment, which made me want to pull my hair out! I’ve also had doctors who were great and worked with me and faxed several versions of the note to try to get specific enough to satisfy my employer (which was REALLY frustrating for both of us). Getting your doctor to understand why you need an accomodation can be frustrating. My current accomodations letter actually came from my neurologist, back when we thought I might have a neurological disorder in november or so of ’07 – which is to say, the doctor had no idea why I had the problems I had, nor did he have any way to verify that I needed the accomodations I outlined, but he was willing to work with me because he thought it was very important that I maintain as normal a life as possible, which meant staying in school. Fortunately, by then, I knew what accomodations letters should look like, so it only took 1 version to get what I needed carried out.
Anyhow, back to the process. So now you have your doctor’s note specifying what you’re not supposed to do.
You take it to the company. Now, the company does NOT have an absolute requirement to give all necessary accomodations. (on the other hand, a school recieving federal funds has a much stronger mandate to accomodate!) The company has to give necessary accomodations when the person can still perform the core duties of the job. Many a fight over accomodations revolve around what ‘core duties’ entail, and more than a few court cases have been fought over that very point. If a company wants to fight you on giving the accomodations, this is frequently one of the ways they will do it – by saying that if they give you the requested accomodation, you will not be fulfilling one of the necessary and important parts of the job.
In theory, the question of hiring and accomodating are different processes. Your need for accomodation is not supposed to be part of the hiring analysis; they are not supposed to consider whether they will need to bend their policies and practices to work with you. However, a great many companies use the principle I just talked about to un-hire people who their hiring process approved. I’ve come very close to having it happen to me. The company cannot revoke its job offer unless they come to the conclusion that you cannot fulfill one of the central requirements of the job, but as I already said, that’s quite a fuzzy area that is often a battleground.
The company may propose alternative accomodations that they believe will equally make the workplace accessible. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether these are actually going to be worthwhile propositions – I’ve heard it going both ways. Generally, these alternatives are a matter of monetary cost. Usually, they’re what in the law we call a ‘good faith’ effort – the company is well-intentioned and looking for ways to try to make things work well for both the company and the individual requesting an accomodation. Sometimes, though, they’re used as a way to make work impossible but try to shield the company from liability – “look, we accomodated zir**, but ze still was not able to perform the job adequately.”
So now, we’ve navigated getting the note, taking it to the company, and theoretically getting an accomodation.
Next there’s actually applying the accomodation, and this is another area where there are struggles. Your accomodation may say you have a flexible schedule, but your immediate supervisor may decide ze wants to see you 6 out of the 8 hours ze’s in the office, which really does a number on the flexibility of your schedule. Especially on something like that, if the accomodation is vague, you’re in for a fight to get it applied in the way you interpreted it. The more precise you can get the language of the accomodation (and for heaven’s sake, get it in writing!), the safer you are from this kind of problem, because then you can bring out your accomodation letter and show it to your boss. Mind you, this is definitely NOT always the case. I’ve worked places where accomodations were regarded as absolute, and if my boss asked me to do something contrary to my accomodation, all I had to say was, “I’m not allowed to lift that much” and I’d get moved to doing something else. Most people, once they have an accomodation letter, will not encounter their bosses trying to…whittle away at their accomodations. However, there are an unfortunate number of people who believe in the ableist notion that accomodations are favoritism, and thus you may get harassed by your boss or your coworkers over the very changes in your environment that make working possible for you. It’s not fair, but frankly the world is often not fair to those of us with disabilities.
The long and short of what I’m trying to say is that getting accomodations is often a big negotiated struggle. It’s not always that way; I know people who have informal, verbal agreements with their supervisors that have worked out well for them (this is particularly true for short-term things, like broken legs and shoulder surgery). But here’s the thing: if your company fails to live up to the agreed upon accomodations, an accomodation that was put together through the process I just described and documented will stand up in court, and be clear on what it means. Verbal agreements do not protect you as well, in part because there is no record of what happened, so whoever you talked to can forget or misremember what was said. As with many other things this law student has said, here again, I have to emphasize…GET IT IN WRITING!
It’s not fair that it’s such a big process to get an accomodation. We shouldn’t have to work so hard to get our employers to work with us, and some are a lot better than this. I’m trying to show what a normal, average process looks like, though, and in my experience, it looks like this.
Out of the whole thing, I find myself very grateful for the cooperative, helpful doctors I’ve had, who have been willing to write for accomodations that have let me work, stay in school, and generally live the life I want. Having your doctor on your side is one of the biggest helps you can have in this process – the other one is having a company that really wants you and is thus willing to work with what you need.
* Specifically, I know that med schools and law schools have successfully survived challenges to their scheduling and attendence policies (respectively). I am not certain why medical schools have survived the challenge, though I suspect that they were able to make the case that the kind of run-around that you go through as a med student is tradition because it’s necessary to prepare you for being a resident. I know the law schools’ attendence policies have survived because it is a requirement set up by the American Bar Association, and ABA accreditation is very important in the legal world.
** I try to use gender-neutral pronouns when I remember, because these kinds of matters affect people of all gender identifications.