How Can Business
Leaders Support
Disabled Workers?

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Disabled workers can be just as productive as able-bodied colleagues. Here’s how business leaders can support and accommodate them.

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By Lauren Dixon

“Tourette [syndrome] started to really impact my work about six years ago,” said Patrick O’Leary, developer relations engineer with tech firm Havok, which is owned by Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. While Tourette syndrome tends to be diagnosed in children and go away by adulthood, O’Leary faced a different challenge. As an adolescent and teen, he could control or suppress his symptoms around people, but stress on the job at Microsoft exacerbated his motor and vocal tics.

“I went from really being able to pass for relatively normal, to some days my body is shaking back and forth severely, making it hard to walk,” O’Leary said. And although it only impacts about 10 percent of people with Tourette’s, he also developed the stereotypical tic of profanity. “That definitely in many ways has caused a lot of unfortunate misunderstandings in and out of work.”

Physical disabilities certainly don’t mean that someone is incapable of doing a job. That should go without saying.”

— Jonathan Webb, vice president of workplace strategy, KI

During a crunch period of video game development that involved long hours and stress, O’Leary had a frustrating conversation with a colleague. “I felt a strong urge to tic come on, so I went into my office, I closed the door, and I just released a string of expletives because I couldn’t help it because I have Tourette syndrome,” he said. The next week, his manager wanted to talk about O’Leary’s unprofessional behavior. That was the first real negative incident he experienced, and it certainly was not the last, he said.

However, O’Leary went to human resources and asked for accommodations. One major condition that tends to appear alongside Tourette’s is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, which made it difficult for him to keep on top of tasks in the fast-paced environment. This meant he needed a quieter workspace with fewer distractions. HR also provided him with a coach to help find strategies to help him focus at work. “[Microsoft has] been extremely supportive in ways that I feel many other employers wouldn’t,” he said.

While Microsoft may have more available resources to accommodate disabled workers than other companies, there are reasonable accommodations that most business leaders can make to attract and retain this diverse group of employees.

Accommodating the Disabled at Work

Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has prohibited discrimination against the disabled in public, including at work. However, disabled Americans still face jobless rates much higher than able-bodied Americans; 2016 showed a 10.5 percent unemployment rate for those with disabilities and 4.6 percent for those without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employers today are facing a competitive job market and struggling to find the best workers for their open positions; many times, this can include those with disabilities, said Jonathan Webb, vice president of workplace strategy at KI, a furniture manufacturer in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “Physical disabilities certainly don’t mean that someone is incapable of doing a job. That should go without saying,” he said. Employers need to make efforts to accommodate workers, both as a business imperative and legal onus.

If an employer has 15 or more employees on staff, they must follow ADA guidelines. These include making a “reasonable accommodation” or a change that will help the disabled employee do their job as long as it is not causing the employer undue hardship. This could include providing an interpreter for someone who is blind or hearing impaired.

Other accommodations could include providing ergonomic furniture, personal lighting, different sizes of computer monitors, changing the volume on phones and more, Webb said. “In terms of the physical workspace, I think it’s important to note that it’s not one size fits all. It rarely is in the workplace, but for individuals with disabilities, the ability to tailor to the specific need of that individual becomes all the more important,” he said. And even if a company can accommodate a worker by adjusting their workspace, Webb advised that leaders ensure continuity within the space. If augmenting furniture for a colleague, it should have similar finishes or fabrics to blend in.

Other accommodations are less about the physical space and more about how the work gets done. By providing a flexible work schedule and work-life balance, employers are likely to see an increased level of dedication, said Amanda Talty, executive vice president and interim CEO of Tourette Association of America, a Bayside, New York-based nonprofit organization that educates and supports communities with Tourette and tic disorders. By accommodating people who need to work from home occasionally, employers are likely to breed loyalty and commitment to the organization, she said.

Still, it’s important to know the laws, obligations, available accommodations and what changes cannot fit with the company, Talty said. For example, if a business is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but a disabled worker needs to change their schedule to 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., that does not fit with the schedule, so the employer must see if there is a compatible role for them in the company. If that other role does not fit, they are not legally required to accommodate.

“If you don’t know the law and therefore don’t know what kinds of accommodations you can make available in your business to support this person or don’t know what accommodations you can’t offer to accommodate this person, it becomes very challenging to fulfill the obligations of a leadership role, which is to balance the employer’s needs against the employee’s needs,” Talty said. “I think you really need to know your stuff.”

Leaders at organizations should be sensitive and compassionate in discussions of disabilities, Talty added. If a manager notices that an employee is struggling at work and is seeing less productivity, then they should talk about how the employer can best support the worker. Be open and honest in the conversation, Talty said, but also understand that a less visible disability does not require the employee to disclose it if they do not wish. Human resources practitioners must also be able to speak with disabled workers and communicate reasonable accommodations, Talty said.

Supervisors should also have disability training to better understand how and when someone is asking for accommodations, said Tom Foran, vice president of underwriting and product development at The Standard, an insurance and financial firm in Portland, Oregon. Employees might not flat-out say, “I need an accommodation,” so it’s important to know what to look out for in these talks, continue that conversation, document it and have a consistent process of evaluating if the company can make accommodations. Documentation is important if a legal issue arises down the road, he said.

When it comes to finding that accommodation, it’s certainly easier when the employee can make a suggestion, Foran said. And the changes usually are relatively inexpensive, averaging less than $1,000, he said. “When you think of what it costs most employers to recruit people into their organization, that’s really a relatively small portion. What they should really be looking at are what are the person’s capabilities and what value can they bring to their organization,” Foran said.

The Curb Cut Effect

Making accommodations for disabled workers might also help able-bodied employees be more productive, Foran said. For example, a dictation program intended to help the visually impaired operate a computer by voice might help other workers more efficiently complete their work, too, he said.

This phenomenon of products meant for disabled populations but helping able-bodied populations is called the “curb cut effect.” According to the podcast “99% Invisible,” disabled activists in the 1960s and ’70s called the Rolling Quads dismantled curbs that inhibited them and their wheelchairs to move about the city of Berkeley, California, and created their own small ramps. By 1977, protesters had been to 11 cities to demand accommodations in federal facilities. While the ADA was in the House of Representatives in 1990, demonstrators crawled up the Capitol’s steps to draw attention to the act’s importance. Thanks to these activists, curb cuts are ubiquitous in the U.S., and everyone benefits — people using wheelchairs, people pulling luggage and parents pushing strollers, just to name a few. A study of pedestrians in Sarasota, Florida, reported that 9 out of 10 “unencumbered pedestrians” went out of their way to use a curb cut.

That curb cut effect impacts the workplace in more ways than one. While bringing good employees to the organization is the biggest advantage, a great perk is also having improved overall engagement from other employees, Foran said. “When they see employees being treated well and being treated fairly, that just tends to improve the overall engagement of the employee population with the employer.”

When they see employees being treated well and being treated fairly, that just tends to improve the overall engagement of the employee population with the employer.”

— Tom Foran, vice president of underwriting and product development, The Standard

In May, Microsoft released information about its Xbox Adaptive Controller, which did away with many of the joysticks and buttons present on the traditional controller to make it more accessible to a range of gamers. Larger directional pads make it easier for disabled gamers to play, and 19 ports on the controller accommodate the variety of devices the disabilities community has created to adapt to their needs.

From the perspective of Microsoft’s O’Leary, these sorts of projects are driven more by employees bringing up the issues than by company leadership aiming to have more accessible product offerings. It was his friend and colleague Bryce Johnson, inclusive lead for product research and accessibility at Microsoft, who led this change. However, he added that Microsoft focusing on accessibility, diversity and inclusion helped to make the case for this new, more accessible controller that is now exciting everyone: employees, customers and competitors of Microsoft’s.

Additionally, a focus on disabilities in the workplace creates a massive amount of goodwill, O’Leary said. “I would assume it would affect retention very positively for both disabled people and able-bodied people.”

And including disabilities in conversations about diversity and inclusion could help with overall D&I efforts. “Disability is simply a mismatch between a person and their environment, the society they find themselves in,” O’Leary said. When thinking of the barriers people experience from that perspective, it helps in seeing the barriers that other people who are the focus of D&I efforts experience.

The Standard’s Foran echoed this point, saying that it can be disarming to begin a diversity conversation with talks of disabilities.

Accommodating disabled workers goes even further. Because many disabled Americans are out of work, many of them are on government assistance programs, Foran said. If more of these people can join the workforce, then it saves the country money with less spending on government-sponsored programs and by increased contributions to tax revenue. “By focusing on getting people with disabilities into the workforce, you create a more inclusive workforce and then you also generate better outcomes for really everybody: the employer, the employee themselves and the country in general.”

Lauren Dixon is a senior editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email