Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Disabilities in the workplace: Federal agencies release new resource guide for employers

By Joan Farrell, JD, Senior Legal Editor
Earlier this month, the White House announced the release of a resource guide to assist employers in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and promoting people with disabilities. The online guide is part of a federal “Curb Cuts to the Middle Class Initiative” through which federal agencies, including the EEOC, are working to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
The online guide brings together in one document numerous tools and resources available for employers. In addition to providing information on recruiting people with disabilities, the guide provides information on best practices for interviewing applicants, retaining employees with disabilities, and providing reasonable accommodations. It also contains links to disability awareness training and disability etiquette training programs—both of which may be helpful for employers to use in their workplace diversity programs.
Make your workplace disability friendlyAs the guide points out, employers can often take their existing programs—such as retention strategies—and tweak them to focus on the needs of employees with disabilities. As an example, the guide notes that onboarding or new employee orientation programs can include disability-specific information such as reasonable accommodation procedures and orientation materials that are in accessible formats. The guide indicates that structured onboarding programs have been shown to ease the transition of veterans with disabilities into the civilian workplace.
In addition, return-to-work programs that employers already have in place for employees returning from injuries covered by workers’ compensation insurance can be expanded to include programs that help employees with nonoccupational injuries return to work.
The guide offers links to several resources that employers can use to help structure a return-to-work program for employees with disabilities, including the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) —a free consulting service funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy—that has a wealth of online information on reasonable accommodation in the workplace. JAN also has a toll-free number employers can use to obtain free, confidential assistance on reasonable accommodation.
It’s important, too, for employers to remember that in addition to requiring reasonable accommodation and prohibiting discrimination based on an individual’s disability, the ADA also contains prohibitions that apply regardless of whether an individual has a disability. For example, the ADA prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries or requiring medical exams except in certain limited circumstances.
Before an employer extends a job offer to an applicant, these inquiries and exams are strictly prohibited. Once an offer is made—but before the prospective employee starts work—the employer generally can ask any medical questions and require a medical exam without violating the ADA. When an individual becomes an employee, these exams and inquiries are permitted only when they are job related and consistent with business necessity.
Here are some steps employers can take to make sure they stay in compliance with the ADA:
  • Make sure job descriptions are accurate, up-to-date, and designate essential functions
  • During job interviews, focus on the applicant’s ability to perform essential job functions
  • Provide training on the ADA’s requirements to all employees involved in the hiring process
  • Provide periodic refresher training on the do’s and don’ts of making medical inquiries and what to do when an employee volunteers information about a disability
  • Make sure supervisors understand the interactive process and when an employee’s disclosures may trigger the employer’s obligation to engage in the process
  • Carefully document the reasons leading to an adverse employment decision that affects an employee or applicant with a disability—including any decision to deny reasonable accommodation

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