The Working Life: Reasonable Accommodations, Part 1

  • In this two-part blog entry, I'll continue the focus on disclosure on the job, giving real-life scenarios. Part one will look at the nature of functional limitations and types of accommodations, and how and what to say when you disclose. Part two will offer quotes from peers about disclosure, and examples of the accommodations they requested and the results.

    I'll start by recommending the web site, which is a treasure trove of information about the ADA Act, citing interviews with peers who have diagnoses, and their employers. The ADA defines a "disability" as, "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits the performance of one or more major life activities of an individual." To request reasonable accommodations, two criteria have to be met: the disability must be known or perceived by the employer, and granting the request cannot place an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

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    As I've written about in here, I would prefer not to disclose. However, the reality is up to 75 percent of people diagnosed with SZ want to obtain work, and for some of us, to be able to effectively function on the job, we need accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Their web site, at, lists accommodations by disability: A to Z. On that page, you can find accommodations by answering a series of questions about an impairment and a job to see accommodation options. Click on "Start Now," click on Mental Health Impairments, and then select the limitation from a list, and you'll get a list of job functions to click on. When you do, you'll find accommodations you could use.

    On JAN's web site, it also lists under mental health diagnoses the kinds of difficulties people might have on the job and ways to counter them.

    The SAMHSA web site has at least 25 pages devoted to the ADA Act and disclosure, functional limitations and reasonable accommodations. Luckily I'm a librarian and a writer, so I'll organize, synthesize, and interpret for you the relevant points of interest to help you decide if an accommodation would benefit you.

    To be clear about making a reasonable accommodation, the SAMHSA web site notes, "It's useful to understand the person's work experience, education and skills as well as any functional limitations he or she experiences in performing a particular job in a certain work setting." A psychiatric diagnostic label like the ones used in the DSM, is not especially useful in determining the kinds of accommodations, and it could backfire. Rather, identifying a set of functional limitations and developing tools to work around them is more effective.

    Some hardships include: maintaining stamina throughout the work day, managing time pressure and deadlines, initiating interpersonal contact, focusing on multiple tasks simultaneously, and responding to negative feedback.

    Schedule modifications:

  • • allowing more frequent breaks
    • allowing workers to allocate their break time according to their own needs, rather than a predetermined schedule
    • allowing workers to use paid or unpaid leave for appointments related to their disabilities.

    Job modification:

    • arranging for job sharing
    • reassigning tasks among workers
    • re-assignment to a vacant position

    Modifications to the physical environment:

    • providing partitions, room dividers or otherwise enhancing soundproofing and visual barriers between workspaces
    • positioning the worker as far away as possible from noisy machinery
    • blocking noise (e.g., by reducing the pitch or volume of telephone rings)

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    Changes in policy:

    • extending additional paid or unpaid leave during a hospitalization or other absence
    • allowing an employee to make phone calls during the day to personal or professional support
    • allowing workers to consumer fluids at their work stations throughout the work day (e.g., if needed due to medication side effects)

    Provision of human assistance:

    • allowing a job coach to come to the work site
    • participating in meetings with the worker and his/her job coach or other employment service provider
    • paying for part or all of the net costs of a job coach

    Provision of assistive technology:

    • providing software that allows the worker to structure time and receive prompts throughout the workday
    • providing a portable computer to enable an employee to work at home or at unusual hours.

    Supervisory techniques:

    • offering additional supervisory sessions
    • offering additional training or instruction on new procedures or information
    • offering information and training in the worker's preferred mode (orally, visually, written, or experiential)

    Decision points vary regarding when to disclose, whom to tell, and how much and what information to provide. You can disclose during the hiring process, after the job is secured but before beginning work, after a positive performance has been established, when an accommodation is needed or when a crisis occurs.

    You can tell your immediate supervisor, a higher level manager, co-workers, friends in other areas of the company, a personnel representative, Equal Employment Opportunity officers, employee assistance staff, or others.

    How much and what type of information you give also varies, so assess what you feel your employer would be comfortable with, and go with your gut. You could state that you have an emotional problem instead of a mental illness or some other label, or use a DSM diagnosis, and possibly give the duration of the condition and its prognosis. Also, you could disclose medications, other therapies or supports used and the previous, current or potential impact of the condition on your job performance. Lastly, you could suggest changes to the work environment that may be helpful (i.e., accommodations).

    Besides self-disclosure, employers sometimes learn an applicant or employee has a psychiatric disability because a post-offer medical examination reveals the use of psychotropic medications, or a supported employment agency acts on behalf of a peer to help him or her obtain and keep a job.

  • As I've revealed here, in 1992 I was forced to disclose after I returned to the firm following a two-week hospital stay. This has guided my approach ever since. My therapist, Max, suggested it's no secret that I have something going on. The good news about the NAMI- Staten Island volunteer of the year award I won in 2004 was published in the employee newsletter, and people congratulated me. One woman told me she felt like a slacker next to me because I did volunteer work, and she hung out in trendy cafes. I'll never know if that wrecked my chance for a promotion last year. On the interview, the HR person asked me, "What obstacle have you overcome in your life that got you where you are today?" I couldn't be truthful, and fudged an answer about getting depressed when my grandpa was in the coma and coming out of the funk.

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    This seems like a lot of information to process, so I'll leave you now to consider what I've written. Join me later in the week for part two. As always, I welcome your comments, so do chime in.


Published On: November 18, 2008