Team Management

Employment Attorney Kevin Fritz on What Employers Need to Know About Accommodating Disabled Workers

Paulette Stout  

Employment attorney Kevin Fritz (KF) has accomplished a ground-breaking career with the use of his brain, voice, and the mobility of a few fingers. In part two of our conversation, Kevin shares ways employers can (and should) be welcoming and accommodating to disabled workers throughout the employee lifecycle.

Q: What mindset shift is needed for employers interviewing disabled candidates?

KF: Too often employers preemptively decide whether a disabled person has the ability to handle a role. That’s not a good approach. Employers shouldn’t ask, “How can you type?”  But rather, ”The job requires typing. Not, “How will you do it?” because number one, that’s illegal, and number two, it doesn’t really matter how they do it. I could be typing with my toes, right? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to reasonably accommodate people for essential job functions, and does not allow employers to decide how those job functions are to be accomplished carte blanche. 

The employee is part of that discussion around accommodations. When I have a job interview, sure, they may see that I can’t really move. But I usually incorporate it into the conversation to preemptively tell the employer that I use a variety of dictation softwares to write briefs and send emails. In fact, I can generate copy faster than most people can with ten fingers because I’m talking. I would make the argument that a disabled person could actually be more efficient because of the way they have to work to get the job done. Employers like efficiency. So, it’s all about reframing.

Q: How can retail and service industries apply that same mindset? 

KF: I used to counsel the restaurant industry. A lot of times employers would call me, saying that they have a blind or deaf applicant—and that they can’t hire them. My very first questions were always the same: Why not? Why can’t you add braille behind the counter? Why can’t you remove that unused garbage can so a wheelchair could fit? Why can’t you add some sort of lip-reading application to a phone that they could use? All these things are cheap and already available. There are a lot of ways that businesses can accommodate disabled people that are very easy to do. But it takes opening minds from current closed thinking and removal of the thinking that “We can’t do that because we’ve never done it before.”

Q: What should employers be doing to accommodate disabled workers during the onboarding process?

KF: It is crucial that all employees receive onboarding. Prior to onboarding, I would recommend that employers present opportunities for disabled candidates to speak up and say, “In order for me to onboard property, I need these accommodations.” 

Onboarding should be inclusive and holistic so that disabled employees can still participate. For example, remote onboarding is very popular now, just like remote interviewing, and this format provides a fair shot to many disabled people who may have trouble traveling to physical spaces. 

Q: When is the right time to discuss accommodations?

KF: Accommodations are applicable at all stages of the employee life cycle. That includes prior to hire and after. When a candidate applies, the company should say, “Hey, we love candidates to apply regardless of their physical ability. Please let us know if we can do anything to accommodate you.” I always encourage disabled candidates to note when potential employers tell you about accommodations. When I applied for my job at Gusto, sure enough, it was mentioned right in the application.  

Q: What kind of accommodation do you typically need at work?

KF: Primarily, dictation software. I type by speaking, so it’s a software tool that’s maybe $300. I also require an open line of communication around my needs. But that’s not really accommodation, that’s just something every employee should have. The takeaway here is that most accommodations really don’t cost any (or much) money. They just require a different way of thinking. 

Q: You mentioned an open line of communications. How can businesses make sure that happens?

KF: Training. Managers need to know how to ask the right questions and how to actively listen.  Remember, there are no magic words when requesting an accommodation. “My back hurts with this chair” could actually be a request to start that conversation. With active listening, employers can be proactive and responsive. 

Q: What challenges have you experienced getting workplace accommodations for yourself and how would you recommend disabled persons navigate those discussions?

KF: I’ve been fortunate to always get the kind of accommodations I’ve needed. My approach has always been to say, “This is what the job requires, and this is what I need to be able to do that job.” So, for me, I have to be able to type, I have to be able to be on camera, I have to be able to talk, I have to be able to be on the phone. So what are the tools that I would need for that?  Dictation software, a good microphone, an adjustable camera—all of these are relatively accessible tools that many employers offer, whether it’s an accommodations need or not.

Q: While your accommodations are primarily digital, what should employers keep in mind for disabled employees navigating physical spaces?

KF: For many, getting in the door is tricky, literally. I think that having a workspace where you can get people through the door is critical. Are there automatic doors? Are the elevators up and running? Is there a backup plan for facilities in case something is out of order? Think about identifying the best ways to get all of that done. There are a lot of new age offices centered around open spaces. But if you need to make a private call and have to do it in one of the little break rooms, can a physically disabled person open the door? Could a blind person navigate a touchscreen outside of the conference room to reserve it? Technology is constantly evolving and so should accessibility features. I encourage employers to think about accessibility whenever they think about introducing or renovating something within their business. With accommodations, it’s about thinking creatively and remembering that not every employee has the same physical needs. 

Q: Have you seen evidence that workplace culture is changing to be more inclusive?

KF: In the past two years with COVID-19 there’s been a huge leveling out of ability. Prior to that, if there was a physical gathering, including differently abled people might have been an afterthought. But now, it’s definitely on the menu to have a remote opportunity. So I think that the culture has changed because of expanded opportunities for people to be more intuitive about the needs of remote—and disabled— workers. 

Q:  What can employers do to provide a workplace that‘s inclusive for everybody?

KF: What employers can do will depend on factors specific to the employer, location, type of work, etcetera. Here are three general ideas:

  1. Add personal caregivers as a benefit. Currently, this is typically something that employees have to pay for out of pocket. Employers could add this benefit as part of its insurance. 
  1. Being less prescriptive about whether a job is remote or in person is a good step towards inclusivity. 
  1. Making physical spaces more inclusive should be a priority. High desks, low desks, adjustable desks—having a range enables businesses to accommodate different types of abilities. It’s ideal for employers to adopt universal design, which is not catered to the able-bodied or disabled. It’s catered to everyone. This is especially important to consider in the office planning phase. Employers should ask questions, like: “Are we being inclusive in every regard? Do we even need an external bathroom door? Why can’t the ramp to get into the building be used by everyone? Does it have to be off to the side?”

Q: What can employers do to attract talent from the disabled community?

KF: They can be open-minded to different abilities. Employers should avoid preconceived ideas about what a job candidate should look like. Instead, they should identify the requirements of the job and determine whether candidates can do it based on how those candidates present. 

Q: What advice do you have for disabled people who are thinking about work and career opportunities?

KF: The advice I give most frequently is on the topic of figuring out what you’re good at and going with it. I remember mentoring  somebody with a disability who was very gifted in math. They took AP calculus their junior year of high school and they wanted to pursue a career in social work. I said, “Why don’t you be an actuarial scientist, or an accountant, or something with math?” And they said, “Well, I’ve never seen someone like me do that.” That’s the problem.  Just because you have not seen it before does not mean it cannot be done. 

Further to the point, I encourage people to not focus on finding a mentor that looks like them necessarily, and instead, focus on finding a mentor—period. The best mentors in my life didn’t have disabilities. They had no relation to any of the challenges I have. But what they did have was successful careers. And I wanted to have a successful career.  

I think a lot of disabled people get discouraged because they feel like they are the only one. But what’s wrong with being the only one? It’s a good thing because you’re able to pave your own path. You don’t need to follow in the footsteps of another person. I never have.

Paulette Stout
Paulette Stout Author of her debut novel, Love, Only Better, Paulette Stout is the gold-star wordsmith and owner of her content marketing agency, Media Goddess Inc., where she crafts content for her list of global clients. Prior to MGI, Paulette led content and design teams at several tech companies, and one educational publisher where her elimination of the Oxford comma caused a near riot. You can usually find Paulette rearranging words into pleasing patterns while wearing grammar t-shirts. Connect with Paulette on Facebook and Instagram at @paulettestoutauthor and on Twitter at @StoutContent.
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