Debunking Myths About Accommodating Employees with Disabilities

Accommodating employees with disabilities is not as expensive or challenging as you think.

My job involves talking to businesses and employers about hiring people with disabilities and retaining people with disabilities with accommodations. Sometimes when I bring up the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the look of fear appears. Employers often get nervous when they hear “ADA” or when they hear about accommodating people with disabilities. I know of some people who, if seeing a person with a disability coming towards them, would cross the street to avoid them (figuratively speaking) because the risk of getting in trouble outweighs anything else. This is unfortunate because it’s based on false notions.

Think of the ADA more as a tool to help people with disabilities more than a tool to punish employers. Yes, there are punitive measures with the ADA but the person least likely to run afoul is someone who wants to do the right thing. If your biggest issue is not knowing what to do or how to handle a situation, that’s good because help is out there for you.

Let me dispel some of the most common misconceptions:

"Accommodations are expensive and cumbersome."
  • Most accommodations have no cost and of those that do, the median cost is $500. Compare this to the costs to not accommodate them- namely the cost to recruit, replace, and train a different employee: On average, it costs small businesses 16–75% of annual salary to replace a worker who leaves.
"If a person needs an accommodation, you’re obligated to give them what they request."
  • Sort of. You’re obligated to accommodate the need, but not necessarily a specific accommodation they may ask for. You can look for the least expensive option, as long as it adequately covers the need. The employer is ultimately responsible for the accommodation, but think of it more as an investment than a burden. Studies have shown that employees who are accommodated have better performance ratings, are less likely to leave the job, and have fewer absences.
"The ADA grants special privileges to people with disabilities."
  • Not true. The ADA should even the playing field for people with disabilities. This means they are still held accountable for performing their job adequately. They should be held to the same performance standards as other employees and disciplined if appropriate.

If you choose to ignore inclusion of people with disabilities in your workforce, you’re missing out on a giant untapped pool of employees and possibly customers. One in five job seekers (and people already with your company) has a disability. Studies show that people with disibilities (especially those who receive accommodations) are less likely to leave employment than those without disabilities. A 2008 study showed that 88% of customers prefer to give their business to a company that includes people with disabilities in its workforce. Also, 30% of U.S. families have at least one member with a disability. Is it good business sense to disregard this demographic?

As an employer, you may be asked to change some job functions and duties to accommodate someone, but these will only be peripheral aspects of the job, not ones that will cause undue hardship on your company. Remember that people with disabilities often bring a new perspective and bring new ideas, so it's likely well worth the effort to do this.

If you have specific questions or want help with guidance, contact the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, the Job Accommodation Network, or your local Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.