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In a new television show New Amsterdam, that airs on the NBC network, Dr. Max Goodwin is hired to be the medical director of a public hospital that has lost sight of its charge to put patient care above all else. On his first day, Dr. Goodwin shakes-up the status quo, holds an all-hands meeting with hospital employees and asks, rather, demands a response to the question, “How can I help?” This is a resounding theme throughout the show. How can I help? It’s a simple question, but an open-ended question that not enough people dare to ask because it generally leads to a need to act, to do something, to change something.

Asking this simple question can be a strategic way of creating a safe space for disability-disclosure at work. It can be a way of demonstrating good faith and opening a door to discuss reasonable accommodations that can enable employees with disabilities to improve performance or complete essential job tasks. This question, or a variation of the question, doesn’t make employers vulnerable to appearing as if they are making assumptions about disability or the possible need for accommodation. Instead, it conveys an interest in employees and the desire to be part of a solution to resolve a challenging situation.

Asking, How can I help?, is a strategy I often suggest to employers who are trying to manage employees who are not meeting performance standards, or when there is an apparent impact on the performance of essential job duties because of a known impairment. This may be a useful strategy when an accommodation has not already been requested, or when disability disclosure has not occurred in response to counseling for poor performance. Sometimes employers are uneasy about directly asking if an accommodation is needed, out of fear of potentially violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There certainly can be situations when employers can and should ask about an employee’s need for reasonable accommodation, but this action must be predicated on what the employer knows about that particular employment situation. In the enforcement guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers practical guidance about when to ask if an accommodation is needed if an employee has not asked for one. For more information, see questions 40 and 41.

The uneasiness of knowing whether or when to ask if an accommodation is needed can be quelled by simply asking if there is anything that can be done to support employees in meeting performance standards, or performing the job duties – without reference to the ADA or disability. This creates a safe space for disclosure and assures employees they can say, I need help, or that a modification or adjustment is needed at work for a reason related to a medical impairment – which is a request for accommodation. In essence, this action creates a path for employees to make it known that an accommodation is needed to address performance issues. It also helps employers avoid asking disability-related questions or appearing to make assumptions based on disability, and can be an effective business strategy for building trust that can be applied to everyone – not just employees who are suspected to have a disability.

How can I help? This simple yet significant gesture can be a guiding principle, a golden rule, for approaching the interactive process under the ADA. Supervisors and managers who are trained to be a catalyst for change, to be part of the solution, can play a key role in performance improvement. This approach can lead to greater employment outcomes for employees with and without disabilities.

For more information on practical strategies for engaging in the interactive process, please contact JAN directly for one-on-one assistance.