Workplace Accessibility: Engaging in the Employee Accommodation Process 

A white person is standing at her ergonomic workstation. Her workstation includes a monitor positioned at eye level.

Workplace Accessibility: Engaging in the Employee Accommodation Process 

Accessibility, diversity, inclusion… words that many of us have heard in the context of employment and our current workforce landscape. Let’s take a closer look, from the perspective of the employee accommodations process. 

At INNoVA, we know that accessible work environments enable businesses to leverage the diversity in our Canadian workforce, which nurtures innovation and growth in our organizations. Workplace accommodations and adjustments are key components of sustaining this diversity. Whether you are working with an employee who has a disability, an injury, illness, medical condition or ANY employee for that matter.  Disability is a minority group that any of us can become a member of at any time; ONE in FIVE Canadians live with a disability.  

A workplace accommodation is a modification made in the work environment that removes a barrier and enables a person with a disability to perform their job. Workplace accommodations and adjustments are imperative in ensuring that your employees can do the work to the best of their ability; this impacts your business productivity, employee morale and reduces levels of employee absenteeism and turnover. The duty to accommodate is also a legal requirement for employers, which carries two components; the procedural component (how is an accommodation request assessed?) and a substantive component (what accommodation is provided?).  

Building an Accessible Workplace: Insights  

Workplace Culture Health Check 

One of the most important aspects that will determine an employee’s comfort level in discussing their workplace needs with you, is the trust and transparency between employer and employee.  

Consider… what is your front-line manager’s typical response when a suggestion is made by an employee? What happens when there is a miscommunication? These are the opportunities for leadership to bring in their curiosity, to ask for more information, to give employees the benefit of the doubt. A common response from the leadership team here at INNoVA is “That is interesting, tell me more…”, “Yes and…”, “Thank you for bringing this up…” 

Your communication as a leader, your initial responses to suggestions and feedback, are nuances that give your employee a sense of psychological safety in discussing more sensitive topics with you in the future. Each interaction you have with your employees is an opportunity to build trust and a sense of belonging.  

Commitment to Accessibility and Accommodation Policy  

Before developing the “what” and “how” of your accommodation policy, it is important to envision what you are aiming for. It’s important to reflect on how you want your commitment to accessibility to be felt, articulated and presented. Consider all stakeholders that might interact with your business; employees, job seekers, clients, customers, suppliers, vendors… when interacting with your organization, how is your commitment to accessibility apparent? An inclusion & accessibility statement is a good starting point, however it must be backed up with well though-out policies and practices, and leadership engaged in the accessibility learning journey.  

Some intentional reflection on your commitment to accessibility will help you build a culture of accessibility best practices and become an employer of choice, rather than solely a legal-compliance workplace culture.  

Who is Responsible? 

Once your organization has developed an accommodation policy that clearly communicates your commitment to accessibility and how an employee’s request will be handled, it’s time to identify your key players. Contrary to popular belief, accessibility is not an “HR issue” or “someone’s else’s job”, it is a shared responsibility.  

An employee’s direct manager for example, needs to be trained and equipped to handle requests for accommodations. This involves investing in disability confidence training for your front-line leaders, to empower them to anticipate employee needs and potential workplace barriers. Best practice in the accommodation process is to approach requests as a collaboration and partnership between the manager, employee and subject-matter experts where needed. For more complex accommodation requests, additional support from your Human Resources team or an internal or external accessibility consultant may be necessary.  

The employee has the responsibility to inform you of their workplace accommodation needs and to engage and collaborate in the process. However, employers also have a duty to inquire, when an employee has not made a request and it is evident that their may be experiencing barriers and performance is being impacted. Frequent check-ins with employee are helpful, and open opportunities to welcome suggestions on practical supports needed to do the job, and what is important for the employee to bring their best selves to work. And if a manager is comfortable, being open to sharing how accommodations, flexibility and workplace adjustments have benefited them personally (disability or not). This normalizes the accommodation conversation and encourages a collaborative approach. 

Rethink Medical Notes 

Traditional accommodation processes are often based on the medical model, where medical documentation is a requirement to engage in the process. True inclusion means the removal of barriers in our practices and policies, it is time to reflect on the purpose of requiring medical notes. In some cases, they may be helpful, however in many cases they pose more barriers and may not be truly necessary.  

Consider… a medical doctor’s expertise is in making a diagnosis, but not necessarily in workplace accessibility and accommodations. An employee may also experience significant delays based on their medical specialist or doctor’s availability, as well as costs (an assessment to diagnose a learning disability for example, can cost anywhere from $1500-4000, not to mention the long wait times).  

It’s important to remember that the reason that an employee makes an accommodation request, is to enable them to be successful in their job. Often, when one employee requires a change to the work environment or alternate work options, other employees may also benefit (disability or not).  

Here at INNoVA, workplace accommodations are focused on the adjustment and accommodation needed (rather than a diagnosis). Responses to requests are rapid and streamlined. We use the social model of disability (which views the environment as disabling rather than a person’s disability as disabling); we aim to de-medicalize and destigmatize accommodations. Think about: quick approval timelines, streamlined processes, employee needs heard, and a partnership model between employees and managers.  

Conclusion: Simple Changes, Significant Impact

Accommodations don’t have to be complex nor expensive. Think about… 

  • A height adjustable desk to create a more ergonomic workstation 
  • The flexibility to work fully remotely  
  • A dimmable desk light to support someone who experiences migraines  
  • The ability to record meetings, so employees can revisit the material at their own pace 
  • Easy flexibility with work hours and to shift schedules when needed  

Accommodations and adjustments enable any employee to increase their productivity by allowing them the tools and flexibility to do the job in a way that works for them, while still meeting core business goals. 

INNoVA’s Accessibility Consulting Services can offer support is all areas of the accessibility journey, including the employee accommodations process, disability confidence training and supporting best practices to cultivate inclusive work environments. One of your most valuable resources are your employees, and when they are engaged and empowered to do the job to the best of their ability, you are setting up your organization (and anyone who interacts with it) for success.  

Michelle Castaneda 
Accessibility Consultant

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