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When Support Persons Hamper the Process They were Brought in to Facilitate

A look at having a support person hinder an accommodation

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


A support person as an accommodation can be very helpful for individuals with disabilities in various employment settings and activities, as long as the accommodation is effective for both the employee and the employer. But what if the support person hampers the communication between parties and the process in general? What is an employer to do?  

We get many inquiries and questions about support persons for individuals with disabilities – how is it supposed to work, who is the right person to do it, does an employer have to okay it, etc. Parents often call asking if they can fill the role of a support person for their son or daughter in the workplace. The answer is maybe. It depends on the effectiveness of that choice of person as the support person as much as the actual effectiveness of a support person as an accommodation in general. And the effectiveness is generally determined by the employer, not the parent / individual who is filling the role.

A support person as an accommodation may be needed for many reasons and for varied disabilities and impairments. Individuals with mental health impairments, learning and intellectual disabilities, brain injuries, attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder, and autism are a sample of the types of disabilities that might benefit from a support person on the job.

Individuals who have difficulty managing emotions, stress, or anxiety may find a support person comforting, encouraging, and a necessary form of assistance in situations that may exacerbate mental health impairments. In workplace situations where there might already be issues of strife and disagreement, someone with a disability might feel extremely stressed about meeting with an employer. Bringing a support person to a meeting may help ease apprehension and allow for a more productive interactive meeting. Other impairments such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, or a learning disability, where cognitive limitations such as thinking, remembering, and concentrating may be issues, and where fatigue may be present, can also necessitate the use of a support person for meetings. If fatigue and/or cognitive impairments are an issue, a support person can help the employee focus on the purpose of the meeting and may offer actual assistance in following a dialog, remembering the concerns to be addressed, and taking notes. Often times a familiar person that an employee is comfortable with can provide moral support when facing an employer in an interview, interactive accommodation meeting, a performance evaluation, or disciplinary counseling.

But in situations where the support person is not adequately trained for the role, doesn’t respect boundaries, or becomes too emotional, controlling, or belligerent, they may do more harm than good for the employee they are intending to assist. How does the employer determine when this will be an effective accommodation or a harmful interlude for the employee and the process?

The employer would want to make a good faith effort (on a case-by-case basis) to accommodate an employee who feels that a support person would be helpful in certain situations. The employer can ask questions to make sure they have a thorough understanding of the needs of the employee - questions about how she sees the process working with a support person present, what specific role the person will fill, and why, due to a disability, the support person will be needed. Once the employer has the information, they can move forward with including the support person or not. If the employer determines that a support person will not be an effective accommodation, they would want to have a valid reason(s) for the denial, explain to the employee how and why they made the determination, and talk about alternate accommodations in place of the support person. The employer should avoid a flat-out denial of a support person as an accommodation as it could violate the employee’s rights under the ADA and adversely affect the success or progress of the employee.

If the employer determines to go ahead and allow a support person, they can certainly lay down some ground rules about the person’s role. Providing written policies or guidelines so the support person and the employee both know and understand the support person’s role before his participation in a meeting could be very effective for all, preventing problems before they have a chance to arise. Usually the situation goes well, with the support person and the employer thinking along the same lines. The employer conducts the meeting while the support person acknowledges the parameters of the process, knows and understands the employee, and supports him accordingly yet appropriately.

See the following positive and not so positive examples:

Jarrod’s mom participates in a disciplinary meeting with his employer. She tells the employer first off before the employer can start the meeting that she will do the talking and because her son has autism, he cannot be held accountable for his actions or his words. The employer adjourns the meeting so they can determine how to handle the situation effectively.

Stevie has an advocate who also has a disability. Because of treatment the advocate feels she has received over time, she is contrary and contentious during the interactive meeting between Stevie and the human resource manager. Even though Stevie is willing to accept and try the accommodations the employer offers, she never gets the chance to say so as the advocate creates a hostile environment with the manager during the process.

Jess called JAN to see if he would qualify as a support person for his daughter Mindy who is interviewing for a new job. Jeff feels that Mindy will benefit from a familiar presence as she interviews in a new situation with an unfamiliar person. Jeff feels he would be the ideal person to help since he is familiar with her disability and personality. Mindy’s employer flat out refused to allow her dad on the premises. JAN suggested submitting a written request for the accommodation of a support person, listing why the support would be beneficial for the employee and why her dad would be the most effective person. Jess could certainly help his daughter construct a letter that would explain her needs in an interview situation to the employer.

When Evie was contacted to interview at a fast food restaurant, she asked the manager if the coach she had in a previous job could attend the interview with her as a support. When the manager asked her what the support person would do for her, Evie explained that she had some anxiety in new situations and the support person would make her feel more comfortable in the interview. The manager agreed as long as the support person would not be answering any of the questions for her.  

Dave asks his brother Al’s employer if he can be present during meetings they have been conducting concerning Al’s performance and conduct. Al, who has an intellectual disability, has been having difficulty with the introduction of new job tasks. Dave feels that Al will be more accepting of the employer’s feedback if he feels he has someone on his side during the counseling sessions. Al’s employer sent Dave an email with information about his role, what the expectations were, and what would happen if Dave failed to meet them.

It is of the utmost importance that employers make a completely good faith effort to include a support person if requested by an employee at any stage in the hiring, interactive, or disciplinary process. By refusing to allow someone to support, assist, or attend to a candidate or an employee, the employer may find that the best people for the jobs are not being fostered and accommodated. And don’t all of us need the opportunity to show what we can do and what we know, in an environment that is most reassuring and supportive?

See the following for more information:

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