Hobby Groups, Workplace Wellness, and Stress Reduction

Posted by Kim Cordingly on June 29, 2016 under Accommodations, Employers, General Information | Comments are off for this article

By: Kelsey Lewis, Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team

Every Thursday afternoon, I grab my yarn and knitting needles and join some of my colleagues at JAN for our “Yarn Club.” A mix of knitters and crocheters gather together during our lunch hour and get to work. While working on our own individual projects, we chat about our work or home lives, and sometimes even delve into deeper topics like religion or politics. Most times though, we spend the hour laughing — a lot. Regardless of the topic, this hour has become something I look forward to every week. Not only has it provided the chance to get to know the group members on a more personal level, but it is truly a therapeutic activity.

There is something about working with my hands and focusing my attention more on this art, and less on my daily stressors, that reenergizes me for the rest of the workday. Other group members have expressed the positive benefits they also feel from working on their individual projects in a shared group setting. This made me think — if more workplaces formed hobby groups, the work environment may be filled with many more relaxed employees.

JAN’s cognitive/neurological team frequently fields situations in which stress plays a significant role in the productivity of an employee with a disability. For instance, many employers share experiences of employees requesting an accommodation of a “less stressful environment.” Other times, we hear of employees having poor attendance or needing to take leave as an accommodation because workplace stress has exacerbated their pre-existing conditions. Although there are accommodations that can help relieve stress to a degree, such as allowing additional breaks to practice stress reduction activities, providing a quiet work area, or using environmental sound machines, additional solutions may be necessary to continue the feeling of relaxation throughout the work day. While forming hobby groups is not a formal accommodation, creating a workplace environment that fosters these type of activities can contribute overall to employee productivity and job satisfaction.

Knitting is certainly not the only hobby that can help relieve stress throughout the work day. Depending on the space and time available, all sorts of interest groups could be formed, including those that involve movement like walking, yoga, or martial arts. Other groups might focus more on hobbies like reading, scrapbooking, model building, or a new personal favorite — adult coloring books! There are many research studies linking physical activity to increased mental health, lower levels of tension, elevated and stabilized mood, better sleep, and improved self-esteem. But how about hobbies as a way to relieve stress?

According to one study that examined the bodily reactions of 115 men and women while performing leisure activities/hobbies, virtually all participants reported lower stress levels and had a lower heart rate during these activities compared to rest of their day. The participants reported that they were 34% less stressed, 18% less sad, and their heart rate dropped approximately 3%. Maybe the most important aspect of the study was that it showed that the positive effects carried over after the participant stopped the activity. This important piece may link hobbies to improved health over the span of a lifetime (Zawadzki, Smyth, & Costigan, 2015).

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a way to reduce stress throughout your work day, or even improve your overall health, why not consider creating a hobby group? Whether this means revisiting those old passions you forgot you enjoy or trying something you’ve never done before, hobby groups are a great way of getting to know your colleagues and tackle the rest of your day with a smile on your face!

References:

Fitzpatrick, K. (2016). Why adult coloring books are good for you. Retrieved from
http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/06/health/adult-coloring-books-popularity-mental-health/

Zawadzki, M. J., Smyth, J. M., & Costigan, H. J. (2015). Real-Time associations between engaging in leisure and daily health and well-being. Retrieved from http://www.ucmerced.edu/sites/ucmerced.edu/files/documents/zawadzki-paper-2015.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JAN Goes to the White House

Posted by Kim Cordingly on March 15, 2016 under Events, General Information, Organizations | Comments are off for this article

By: Sheryl Grossman, Consultant – Motor Team

February 18, 2016, will be forever etched into my brain. This was the day when approximately 130 Jewish disability rights advocates convened in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss where we as a community have been, and where we need to go.

My work at JAN is greatly informed by my Jewish tradition, where we find the work of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14) who stated that “the highest level of tzedakah [righteous act, often mistranslated as charity] is helping one help themselves,” or “setting one up in business rather than providing for someone,” or more commonly, “teaching one to fish, rather than giving one a fish.”  It was important, and humbling as someone working in the field of work-related disability accommodations to see this be included in the wide array of topics seen as normal in Jewish Community.

As the day’s events unfolded, we received a great history lesson from featured speaker Judy Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. This was enhanced by comments later in the day from Chai Feldblum, Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who was present during the writing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is familiar with how the “religious exemption” (where under Title III of the ADA, religious entities are exempt from having to make their public access facilities accessible) came to be.

The main event of the day centered around four panelists discussing the future of our movement:

Dr. John Winer of the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities talked about making the experience of disability normalized in the community.  “People with intellectual disabilities have the right to housing, to an occupation, and to feeling like productive members of society. We need to do the right thing by being beneficent,” he said. “No individual wants to feel like they are a chesed project [charity case].”

Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International stressed the need for organizations to be open and transparent about not knowing what they do not know. She shared the vision for Hillel going forward to actively engage Jewish students with a disability in an effort to ensure greater inclusion in campus life, including religious activities.

Aaron Kaufman senior legislative associate at the Jewish Federations of North America made a great point about the fact that some pieces of the inclusion puzzle do cost money, but if we prioritize inclusion, we will find a way to pay for it. This really resonated with me: building a mikveh [ritual bath] costs money, but if the community wants it to happen, we find a way to pay for it.  So too with inclusion Aaron pointed out.

Ruti Regan, co-founder of Anachnu, an organization that teaches the Torah from a disability perspective hit the nail on the head by visually demonstrating how an action has a very different connotation in different contexts that are learned behaviors in society. An example she used was that a person with a developmental disability may display a behavior of rocking back and forth – this being perceived as a “problem” or deviation from a norm. In a different context, a person in prayer might be rocking back and forth and this is perceived as devout behavior. Her point was that we need to become aware of how we prescribe meaning (good or bad) to the same behaviors based on the context.

Comments from Shane Feldman, Lauren Tuchman, and Liz Weintraub, amongst others highlighted improvements that have been made and concerns for issues that still need much attention.

All in all, it was an energizing day that I feel sure will just be a springboard for more good inclusion work to come. Many thanks to the White House staff who made this event happen:  Matt Nosanchuk and Maria Town – both from the Office of Public Engagement.

Spring Cleaning Your Workplace

Posted by Kim Cordingly on March 7, 2016 under Accommodations, Employers, General Information, Products / Technology | Comments are off for this article

By: Melanie Whetzel, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team

After the long, dark, and cold winter, we yearn for spring. We look forward to warmth, flowers, birdsong, and spending time outdoors. We also look forward to the opportunity to spring clean our homes, workspaces, and classrooms. What better time to get rid of clutter and lighten up? It would be a much easier task if it were one we kept up with throughout the year, but most of us find that difficult to do.

While for some of us messiness may be a routine annoyance, for employees with organizational difficulties as a result of attention deficit disorder (ADD), cognitive issues and/or fatigue due to cancer treatments, fibromyalgia, brain injury, multiple sclerosis (MS), or other impairments, creating and maintaining order may be especially challenging.

For those of you who work from home, you may find it even more difficult to keep up with the clutter in your work space. Maybe the fact that you don’t have co-workers who can see your mess makes it easier to let it go and let it grow! There is also the chance at home that items not belonging in your office have an easier time migrating there.

Regardless of whether you work in a classroom, an office, a cubicle, or a home office, reducing the disarray in your workspace may very well increase your sense of professionalism and productivity. Look to the following tips for help in organizing your workspace and reducing your clutter to a more manageable level.

  • Don’t become overwhelmed when you look at the area about to be cleaned. Take heart! Be brave!
  • Start from one side of the room, area, or desk and move in a path to the opposite side.
  • Remove rarely used tools and gadgets from your desk top and drawers. Place them in a storage area that is convenient for when you do need them. Label areas for easy retrieval.
  • Do you have books that you rarely use? Remove those to storage as well. If you haven’t used a particular book within the last 60-90 days, it is probably not something you need to have at your fingertips.
  • If you are a collector of whatnots and trinkets, consider limiting the number you display on your desk at a time. Put the others into storage and plan to rotate them in and out for a fresh new look.
  • If you have extra furniture in your space that is not needed, consider removing it. It may create more surface area that allows you to collect even more clutter.
  • Think about hanging photos of your family, sports teams, etc., on the walls instead of having them take up desk space.
  • If you have a mountain of paperwork, go through it with only three categories in mind: things to act on, things to file, and things to toss.
  • Color-code files to help identify them with ease.
  • Invest in stackable bins or trays for papers. Label them.
  • Use a bulletin or magnetic board to keep often-used items, schedules, or policies / procedures within eyesight. If you are a person who likes to collect photos, cards, or whatever, consider having one board for work use and one for personal use.
  • Have a trash can handy while opening mail. Toss absolutely everything that does not need to be responded to or remembered.
  • If your office recycles paper, have a tray handy for that. Take to the larger recycling area at least weekly.
  • Arrange the items on your desk and in your office according to how you use them. Your desk and surrounding office / cubicle space may look different if you are left-handed, for example.
  • Having an efficient usable workspace isn’t about it looking good, it’s more about the space being functional for you and your needs in your particular job.
  • Try to reserve 10 minutes at the end of each day to put things away, clear off your workspace, and prepare for the next day.

You can take charge and control your clutter by not allowing it to accumulate. Then when spring rolls around, you may be able to spend more time enjoying the flowers, the birds, and the outdoors!

 

“But you don’t look sick…”

Posted by Kim Cordingly on June 5, 2015 under Accommodations, General Information, Organizations | Read the First Comment

 

It’s late spring and with that comes many things: warmer weather, rain showers, flowers (and with them the pollen), Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and a personal favorite of mine, the Indianapolis 500. But it also brings with it awareness — awareness of different disabilities — such as National Fibromyalgia Awareness Day; Better Speech and Hearing Month; Mental Health Awareness Month; National Headache Awareness Week; and National Arthritis Month. As I think about all of this and observed all of the various posts about it on social media, it brings to mind how many of my friends and family (myself included) deal with silent disabilities on a daily basis and how many people out there are unaware that silent disabilities exist.

There are many individuals who have silent disabilities and hearing these words uttered can be hurtful. Many people do not realize that it can be a daily struggle for some just to get out of bed, take a deep breath, put on their shoes, walk the dog, etc. It can be difficult to do the most mundane of everyday tasks that most people take for granted.

So, the next time you see someone park in an accessible parking spot or use one of the scooters at the store, please try not to judge them. You just never know — they may be dealing with a hidden disability and could probably use a kind word or a smile.

And while many struggle daily to deal with their disabilities, they often do not let it stop them from working and doing what they want to and can do. Here are some famous people with disabilities who never let their disabilities define them or stop them:

Charlie Kimball – The first and only licensed Indy Car driver with Type I Diabetes -3rd place finish in the 2015 Indianapolis 500!

Muhammad Ali – Professional boxer with Parkinson’s

Abraham Lincoln –16th President of the United States believed to have experienced depression

Mary Todd Lincoln – Former First Lady of the United States who was believed to have had schizophrenia

Woodrow Wilson – 28th President of the United States who had dyslexia

John F. Kennedy – 35th President of the United States who had asthma

Ronald Regan – 40th President of the United States and actor who had dementia

Michael J. Fox – Actor with Parkinson’s disease

Harrison Ford – Actor who has experienced depression and OCD

Bob Hope – Actor who had asthma

Rita Hayworth – Actress who had dementia

Agatha Christie – Author who experienced epilepsy

Alexander Graham Bell – Scientist credited with being the inventor of the first telephone who had dyslexia

Albert Einstein – Theoretical physicist was thought to have autism, dyslexia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

John Nash – Mathematician who lived with schizophrenia

(And the list goes on…)

For more information on silent/hidden disabilities:

Job Accommodation Network (JAN) – A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations (Includes workplace accommodation information for many of the disabilities mentioned)

JAN Presentation – Shedding Light on Hidden Disabilities
Anne Hirsh, M.S. and Beth Loy, Ph.D.

Invisible Disabilities Association

But You LOOK Good – How to Encourage and Understand People Living with Illness and Pain

 

 

Spotlight on Accommodating Individuals with Depression in the Workplace

Posted by Kim Cordingly on August 26, 2014 under Accommodations, Employers, General Information, Organizations | Comments are off for this article

By: Daniel Tucker, Consultant

With the recent tragic loss of legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams, there has been much discussion surrounding mental health issues and depression in particular. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2012 approximately 16 million adults had suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year, representing just under 7 percent of all adults in the United States. JAN frequently receives calls from various individuals concerning employees with depression in the workplace, so we wanted to touch on some basic information and resources people may find helpful.

There are a variety of depressive disorders according to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Generally, symptoms of depressive disorders include prolonged feelings of sadness, loss of interest in most or all activities, and difficulty concentrating, and can also include loss of appetite, insomnia, and feelings of worthlessness, among other symptoms. An individual diagnosed with a depressive disorder will meet the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in most cases.

Due to the symptoms mentioned above, employees with depression may have difficulty performing job tasks and meeting performance and conduct standards. However, with the proper accommodations and support, employees can continue to work successfully. Typical accommodations include allowing leave for treatment, including doctor appointments; taking steps to reduce distractions and stress; providing praise and positive reinforcement; and permitting the employee to take breaks as needed. In many cases, providing a schedule modification in the form of a flexible schedule or later start time, providing additional unpaid breaks, and removing or modifying marginal job functions can be helpful as well. As always, effective accommodations must be determined on a case by case basis as every situation is unique.

For more accommodation ideas and information, you can visit JAN’s resources for individuals with depression. You can also visit our other mental health publications. If you have any questions regarding depression and workplace accommodations, please feel free to contact JAN for individualized assistance.

References:

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (2014, August 20). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1mdd_adult.shtml.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Alliance on Mental Illness

What Are the JAN Consultants Reading?

Posted by Kim Cordingly on May 29, 2014 under Blogging with JAN, Consultants' Corner, Employers, Entrepreneurship / Self Employment, General Information, Organizations | Comments are off for this article

Beth Loy – Principal Consultant

I recently read Laura L. Hayes’ article How to Stop Violence: Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are.

In this Slate.com article, Hayes discusses examples of individuals who were characterized as “mentally ill” by society, but who acted out of anger to commit crimes. These individuals, she argues, were controlled by that behavior and committed violent acts on someone else because of anger, not a mental health condition. Citing examples and statistics that show most violent crimes are committed by individuals who do not have a mental health condition, Hayes goes on to discuss research studies, media speculation, biological responses, gun regulation, and references in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Hayes argues that violent crimes committed by people with a mental health diagnosis get a lot of attention from the media, but are extremely rare. And, Hayes writes, anger fuels violence, not a mental health diagnosis.

Linda Batiste – Principal Consultant

After receiving several questions in a row about whether the ADA applies to foreign employment, I decided to read up on the subject. I found several publications on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Website, including:

Employee Rights When Working for Multinational Employers-Fact Sheet

The Equal Employment Opportunity Responsibilities of Multinational Employers – Fact Sheet

Enforcement Guidance on Application of Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act to Conduct Overseas and to Foreign Employers Discriminating in the United States

After reading these publications, I decided to write up a summary for the JAN Website to serve as a quick reference on this subject:

Consultants’ Corner: Does the ADA Apply to Foreign Employment?

I hope you find the summary useful!

Anne Hirsh – JAN Co-Director

I am reading any and all articles that I can find on the new regulations for Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that went into effect on March 24, 2014. Employers are hungry for information on how to effectively implement self-identification of disability within their company as well as how to find qualified talent. They are also either creating or reviewing existing company reasonable accommodation policies including reasonable accommodation for onboarding. OFFCP continues to update its Website and FAQs.

This article on Job Application/Interview Stage Dos and Don’ts may be of interest.

Here is a JAN article on incorporating reasonable accommodation into a company onboarding procedure.

JAN’s archived Federal Contractor Webcast series may also be of interest

Sheryl Grossman – Consultant, Motor Team

Since recently returning from the Jewish Women Entrepreneurs Annual Conference, I’m really excited to pick up an often referenced book by Deborah Gallant entitled Shine Online.  According to Ms. Gallant, “Shine Online is a 100-page book that answers every question you have about what to do…and in what order…,” regarding the Internet marketing of your business.  For more tips on building a successful business, see her Website.

Daniel Tucker – Consultant, Cognitive/Neurological Team

I recently read an article in Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin entitled Shame-Focused Attitudes toward Mental Health Problems: The Role of Gender and Culture (2014) by Nan Zhang Hampton and Seneca E. Sharp. The purpose of this study was to determine whether there were differences based on gender and three ethnicities (Asian, Latino, and Caucasian American) concerning internal attitudes toward one’s own mental health impairment.  Previous research suggested that women feel more shame than men, however, this study concluded there was no significant difference between genders across the three ethnicities. The results of the study did suggest there was a significant difference in attitudes across ethnicities, with Asians reporting the least amount of Internal Shame (IS), and Latinos reporting they would feel the most shame as compared to Asians and Caucasian Americans. The authors attributed these findings to cultural values, particularly Latino cultures tending to place high value on family honor and the stigmatization of mental illness being seen as a dishonor to the family.

In conclusion, the authors pointed out the implications for rehabilitation counselors. Due to the shame associated with mental health impairments among Latinos, they may be less likely to seek rehabilitation services. As a result, the authors suggest rehabilitation counselors should put more focus on encouraging Latinos to “get facts” by developing educational workshops and providing materials to service providers who would have contact with individuals from this population.

It is probable that these findings and suggestions would be applicable in the workplace as well. Given the diversity of today’s workforce, employers may benefit from looking at ways to effectively communicate disability awareness with the goal of reducing stigma and helping all employees to feel they can approach their employers about reasonable accommodations. Most accommodations, especially those for mental health impairments, cost nothing, while the process of replacing an otherwise qualified employee can be costly.

Hampton, N.Z., & Sharp, S.E. (2013).  Shame-Focused Attitudes toward Mental Health Problems:  The Role of Gender and Culture.  Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 57 (3), 170-181.

Melanie Whetzel – Senior Consultant, Cognitive/Neurological Team

I am reading The Essential Brain Injury Guide, a publication of the Brain Injury Association of America. With the number of questions and often complex requests for assistance we receive on the cognitive/neurological team in the area of brain injuries, it makes sense to expand my knowledge as much as possible. The guide contains eight chapters ranging from understanding the brain and brain injury, to understanding and treating functional impacts, to family, legal, and ethical issues. I will be reading and learning from this guide for quite some time to come.

Tracie DeFreitas – Lead Consultant, ADA Specialist

JAN Consultants must be familiar with many different workplace laws that impact the employment of people with all types of medical impairments. In particular, we offer in-depth technical assistance on the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and use a number of enforcement guidance documents issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to explain employers’ obligations and employees’ rights under the statute. I read and share many of these documents daily and so can you by going to JAN’s AskJAN.org ADA Library under EEOC Guidances.

Another law JAN Consultants frequently receive questions about is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA often poses unique challenges for employers and so in-order to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and issues, I’ve been following a Blog entitled FMLA Insights. This informative Blog is authored by Jeff Nowak, who is co-chair of the labor and employment practice at Franczek Radelet where he represents employers in all aspects of employment law. The Blog addresses practical FMLA topics of interest to employers, highlights important court decisions, and provides updates on U.S. Department of Labor enforcement practices and initiatives – among many other FMLA and state family leave law issues. To learn more, you can go to the Website and sign-up to receive e-mail notices about new entries.

Kim Cordingly – Lead Consultant, Self-Employment Team

I’m currently reading the 2nd edition of Making Self-Employment Work for People with Disabilities (2014) by Cary Griffin, David Hammis, Beth Keeton and Molly Sullivan. The 1st edition has been a vital resource for JAN customers pursuing self-employment, so we’re thrilled to be referring individuals to this new edition.

I’ve also recently read the Office of Disability Employment Policy report on Self-Employment for People with Disabilities (2013). It discusses the experiences and outcomes of ODEP’s Start-Up USA grant projects, which sought to “…develop research-based policy and provide technical assistance to organizations geared toward achieving sustainable self-employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities.”

These are both indispensable reading for anyone interested in advancing self-employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Also, I recently attended a conference on Women and Economic Security at the University of Michigan, which prompted me to read the following article related to women with disabilities and poverty:

Income Poverty and Material Hardship among U.S. Women with Disabilities (2009) by Susan Parish, Roderick Rose, and Megan Andrews – Social Service Review.

It includes data that suggest, “…women with disabilities experience such hardships as food insecurity, housing instability, inadequate health care, and loss of phone service at rates that are higher than those among nondisabled women. Rates of hardship remain higher even after adjusting for a host of individual characteristics, including marital status, age, race, and education.”

Much discussed at the conference was The Shriver Report – A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink (2014), which is next on my reading list.

Teresa Goddard – Senior Consultant, Sensory Team

I am planning a vacation, so am reading Walt Disney World with Disabilities by Stephen Ashley.  It was published in 2008, but still has detailed information on many rides and attractions. Next on my list is PassPorter’s Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line: Easy Access Vacations for Travelers with Extra Challenges by Deb Wills and Debra Martin Koma.

Earlier this month while making vacation plans, I picked up a copy of Walt Disney World with Disabilities by Stephen Ashley. Although the information was a bit dated due to changes both in the attractions at Walt Disney World and in the park’s system for providing accommodations since 2008, I found the book’s detailed descriptions of rides, restaurants, and events such as fireworks to be helpful as my party and I decided which parks to visit and how to make the most of our FastPass ride reservations; this is a system that allows one to reserve a place in a faster moving line for a small number of attractions each day. What impressed me most about this book was the attention to details of interest to those with hidden impairments such as fragrance sensitivity. In fact, the information on lighting and on rides with fragrances helped two members of our party avoid potentially problematic situations and allowed them to plan ahead about how to self-accommodate in some areas of the park. I would like to see this resource updated to reflect current park conditions and practices. Ideally, I would also prefer to have an accessible digital copy. The book is very large — too large in fact to fit in the bag that I wanted to carry to the park, so I memorized all pertinent details in advance. Also, while the book was large the print was small.

If you are looking for information on navigating Walt Disney World as a person with a disability, this book is only one of many resources that you may wish to explore.

The Walt Disney World Website also contains a wealth of information.

Elisabeth Simpson – Senior Consultant, Mobility/Sensory Team

I recently read an article in Counseling Today magazine on the role of school counselors in transition planning titled Focusing on ability, not disability by Amy Cook, Laura Hayden and Felicia Wilczenski. The article discusses how school counselors can be advocates for students with intellectual disabilities (ID) as they transition into post-secondary education. They highlight programs where school students with ID work with educational coaches and can audit or enroll in college courses for credit. The article states, “… educational institutions have increased postsecondary educational options for individuals with ID, including offering greater access to higher education through concurrent enrollment between high schools and universities. Such programs provide students with ID the opportunity to attend college and enroll in college classes, participate in college-based activities (for example, clubs, intramural sports and extracurricular activities) and, in some cases, reside on campus.”

Thoughts from JAN’s Co-Directors for National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Posted by Kim Cordingly on October 30, 2013 under Accommodations, ADAAA, Employers, Entrepreneurship / Self Employment, General Information | Comments are off for this article

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and this year’s theme is “Because We Are EQUAL to the Task.” While this month is a great time to raise awareness of the many valuable contributions of America’s workers with disabilities, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the many changes over the years in how we think about disability and employment.

Job Accommodation Network (JAN) co-directors Anne Hirsh and Lou Orslene have a collective 40+ years of experience providing leadership at JAN. As the JAN Blog editor, I thought this was an opportune time to ask them to share their views on some of the issues at the heart of increasing employment opportunities for individuals with all types of disabilities.

In my initial question, I asked Anne and Lou to talk about the biggest changes they’ve observed during their tenure at JAN for people with disabilities in the employment arena.

Anne’s immediate reply was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She and I both began working at JAN prior to the passage of the ADA, so witnessed firsthand what a game changer this was. In those early days, some of the first questions regarding the employment provisions of the ADA were fielded by JAN consultants, with Anne coordinating our rapid increase in call volume. A related point she emphasized was the pathway created by the ADA for an individual to disclose one’s disability and subsequently request an accommodation. JAN’s work over the years has been at the forefront of facilitating this process.

On another front, Anne reflected on changes over the past 10-15 years when JAN received calls from parents asking about their children with disabilities transitioning from school to work. In recent years however, the tables have turned in that we’re now receiving an increasing number of calls from adult children contacting us about aging parents who acquire disabilities later in life and need to continue to work. Lou remarked this is a major shift in today’s workforce – many individuals are working longer while still being affected by the aging process. He suggested that employers should have proactive policies and training related to disability and employment because we are all likely in our lifetimes to be impacted by health issues in the context of work. Employers are starting to recognize the benefits of retaining aging employees who, despite an impairment, are capable of continuing to contribute to a business’ success.

Another change Anne remarked on was the increase in the number of students with disabilities in the higher education system. Lou added that particularly in his travel to conferences and training events, he encounters many more highly trained young adults with disabilities applying for positions or currently employed. This progress was fostered by the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He remarked that while there is still much room for much improvement in educational parity and hiring rates, notable progress has been made. Programs like the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities (WRP) and other internship programs are designed to enable talented and motivated college students and graduates to reach their goal of a productive career in their chosen field.

Likewise in the education arena, Lou pointed out that veterans with service-connected disabilities returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are taking advantage of the Post-911 GI Bill, which supports their educational goals and transition into civilian employment. This will mean more disabled veterans will be entering the workforce or choosing entrepreneurship, which will further diversify and strengthen our economy.

Lou noted a change as well in how we think about inclusion and diversity. It has become more commonplace for issues around disability to be incorporated into mainstream diversity programs and policies, whereas in the past, this was not the case. This shift means that expectations are changing as to what a diverse and inclusive workforce looks like. He added, “We can only expect this shift to increase in speed with the broadening of the coverage under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) along with the new Section 503 regulations.”

My second question for Anne and Lou involved what they saw as the greatest contributions JAN has made in advancing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities over the past 30 years.

For both Anne and Lou, two words exemplified what they saw as one of JAN’s most important contributions – confidence and competence. For individuals with disabilities, JAN consultants have educated customers on how to become better self-advocates. After thousands of calls to JAN — ultimately one conversation at a time — consultants have provided the information, resources, and guidance so that individuals can become more knowledgeable and empowered to move forward with their goals. Lou explained the same is true for the employers who have contacted JAN. Often HR professionals or managers encounter situations with applicants or employees where they are unsure what to do. They may have an ADA question, a particular accommodation situation, or both. JAN’s consulting services provide a free and confidential way for employers to discuss these situations and concerns. Employers therefore feel more confident and competent when hiring and accommodating qualified workers with disabilities; applicants and employees with disabilities feel more empowered to voice what they need to be successful on the job.

Anne highlighted a second unique JAN contribution — the role our consultants play in problem solving and sharing potential accommodations solutions with customers on a case by case basis. Lou pointed out this knowledge is then shared through JAN’s networking and training with other organizations – particularly service providers. He believes this outreach has expanded with JAN’s effective use of social networking tools and training platforms. Lou emphasized JAN’s strong commitment to support the work of other organizations thereby connecting people and organizations together in support of our collective goal of creating a more inclusive workforce.

My final question for Anne and Lou was on a more personal note – asking each to comment on what they feel is the best part of their jobs as co-directors at JAN.

Both Anne and Lou emphatically stated the best part of their job was making an impact on the lives of the customers JAN serves. As co-directors, both spend a great deal of time on the road and they each stated how blown away they are by the stories they are told about how someone’s life was affected by the guidance they received from JAN. These affirmations are received as well on an ongoing basis through emails, phone calls, and follow-up data. Anne attributes this success to the JAN staff, who she describes as “some of the most dedicated people she knows.” Both said they are constantly amazed at the day-to-day effort and passion the staff brings to their work.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Anne and Lou for sharing their thoughts for this Blog. The JAN staff appreciates their vision, dedication and leadership.