From the desk of Linda Carter Batiste, J.D., Principal Consultant/Legislative Specialist
I’ve worked at JAN for over 24 years and in all that time one of the ongoing barriers to the successful employment of people with disabilities has been the difficulty some people have in getting their personal needs met in the workplace. I’m referring to personal needs that range from help taking off and putting on a coat to help with basic human functions such as eating and toileting – things many people take for granted. Under current law, with limited exception, employers are not required to provide assistance with personal needs, so when people with a disabilities need help meeting personal needs in the workplace, what are they supposed to do? One option is to pay for a full time personal attendant, which for many people can eat up most of their salary. Another option is to try to hire someone just to come in for restroom and lunch time breaks, but it’s very difficult to get someone to do that. What about just asking coworkers to help? There are many issues with this option. For instance, who wants their coworkers helping them in the restroom? What coworker can be available to help whenever needed and how likely is it they will be properly trained to help anyway? And, to top it off, most employers won’t allow coworkers to stop doing work tasks and go help with personal needs.
But all this may be changing in the near future, at least for employees of the federal government.
Background: In February, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend the regulations for Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The NPRM provides guidance to federal agencies on what they must do to satisfy their obligation to engage in affirmative action in employment for people with disabilities. One very important part of the proposal is to require federal agencies to provide personal assistance services, such as assistance with eating, drinking, using the restroom, and putting on and taking off outerwear, to employees who need them because of a disability, unless doing so would impose undue hardship.
I’m in favor of this proposal for many reasons. One reason is that I think people with disabilities should have the option of working and as I have already stated, in my experience getting personal assistance in the workplace has been one of the major barriers to employment.
Another reason I’m in favor of federal employers providing personal assistance services is that as a taxpayer, I am very happy to see my tax dollars being spent on enabling people to work when they choose instead of paying them disability benefits because they couldn’t get the workplace supports they needed.
And finally, my hope is that if the federal government starts providing personal assistance services, other employers will see the benefit of doing the same and will voluntarily provide personal assistance services to their employees who need them. If so, maybe we’ll finally be able to overcome this longstanding barrier to the employment of people with disabilities.