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Disability Awareness Training

Consultants' Corner providing resources on disability awareness training

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Principal Consultant, Team Lead

Several JAN publications list disability awareness training as an accommodation that can be helpful to an employee with a disability. But what does this sort of training entail? We get questions from employees and employers alike wanting to know more about how they might provide this type of training to their co-workers or employees. The answer is this – provide any information that can help the co-worker or employees to better understand the employee with the disability. But there are a few guidelines an employer would want to follow.  

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer cannot breach the confidentiality of the employee with the disability. The employer cannot share with co-workers any information about the employee in regard to disability, medical condition, or accommodations. However, the employee with the disability is free to provide information to co-workers that can explain those matters. Many times an employee with a disability would like for his co-workers to have more information about him so they will better understand social issues, information processing, and/or learning differences that may be affecting the employee, or why accommodations may be needed. Co-workers often see an employee receiving something in the workplace that they do not receive and misunderstand the reason. Accommodations that might be put into place that could possibly be misconstrued by co-workers include, but are not limited to, telework, flexible scheduling, policy modifications, and job restructuring.

Let us look at some examples:

  • Monica confronts her supervisor with a request to be provided an opportunity to work from home as one of her co-workers is now doing. Although there is no formal policy that allows telework, Monica states, “What is available for one employee should be available to all of us.”
  • Liam has been provided a modified policy when it comes to attendance because of his seizure disorder. In a department-wide meeting, his co-worker Viktoria asks her supervisor why Liam has been allowed to miss more days than the rest of them and still keep his job. Liam later asked his supervisor if he could present some information to his co-workers about his seizures so they will stop thinking he is getting preferential treatment.
  • Diego is allowed to report to work within quite a flexible time frame because he takes medication for a sleep disorder that enables him to get consistent sleep nightly. Due to the medication, he is often unable to wake and get to work by the customary start time of 7:00 am. As an accommodation, Diego reports to work between the hours of 7 - 8 am, then adjusts his quitting time accordingly. Several of his team members have made wisecracks to him after questions to their supervisor about the leniency of Diego’s attendance policy in contrast to their own have gone unanswered.
  • Poppy, a new employee on the autism spectrum, is not comfortable chit-chatting at the coffee pot in the mornings with other employees in her unit. Her supervisor sees no issue and is surprised when two unit members approach him to ask “What’s up with the antisocial new girl?”
  • Will has pseudobulbar affect (PBA) as a result of a stroke. One of the effects of the PBA is a heightened level of emotional reaction. Will often breaks down in tears at inappropriate times and would like for his engineering department to be educated on PBA so they better understand what he is going through.

What is an employer to say when specifically asked about an employee’s treatment that may be perceived as more favorable by co-workers? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) answers this question in its publication Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities ActIt states that an employer may not disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation because this usually amounts to a disclosure that the individual has a disability. The ADA specifically prohibits the disclosure of medical information except in certain limited situations, which do not include disclosure to co-workers.

An employer may certainly respond to a question from an employee about why a co-worker is receiving what is perceived as "different" or "special" treatment by emphasizing its policy of assisting any employee who encounters difficulties in the workplace. The employer also may find it helpful to point out that many of the workplace issues encountered by employees are personal, and that, in these circumstances, it is the employer's policy to respect employee privacy. An employer may be able to make this point effectively by reassuring the employee asking the question that their privacy would similarly be respected if they found it necessary to ask the employer for some kind of workplace change for personal reasons.

Since responding to specific coworker questions may be difficult, employers might find it helpful before such questions are raised to provide all employees with information about various laws that require employers to meet certain employee needs (e.g., the ADA and the Family and Medical Leave Act), while also requiring them to protect the privacy of employees. In providing general ADA information to employees, an employer may wish to highlight the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation, including the interactive process and different types of reasonable accommodations, and the statute's confidentiality protections. Such information could be delivered in orientation materials, employee handbooks, notices accompanying paystubs, and posted flyers. Employers may wish to explore these and other alternatives with unions because they too are bound by the ADA's confidentiality provisions. Union meetings and bulletin boards may be further avenues for such educational efforts.

As long as there is no coercion by an employer, an employee with a disability may voluntarily choose to disclose to co-workers their disability and/or the fact that they are receiving a reasonable accommodation.

If the employer feels that disability awareness training may help the individual in the workplace by allowing her co-workers a better understanding of her needs, the employer must be certain that the employee is fully on board and thoroughly understands her role before moving forward with any type of training or information session.  Remember ADA confidentiality rules.

And this last point is where the desire to provide co-workers with disability–related information, or awareness training comes into play. An employee with a disability often feels that providing information about the disability, how it affects him, and what he needs in order to perform at his best is going to allow co-workers the understanding needed to accept him for who he is.

So how is the disability awareness training accomplished? That is really up to the employee with the disability, along with the employer’s support. The employer can fully support the employee by allowing the time and opportunity for the training, but the actual verbalization of the information should come from the employee or from a qualified person designated by the employee. Most often the employee is the one who fully knows how the disability affects him, what he finds to be difficult, what he needs in order to succeed, and how others can assist him in that process. In some cases, a service provider, an educator, or even a family member may be the most qualified individual to present the needed information to the group. The proper person could be whoever the employee feels most comfortable with, and who would be most effective in conveying the essential information.  

If an employer wants to provide a general form of disability awareness training that might include ADA and accommodation information, they can do so at any time, and would not need to have the permission and participation of employees with disabilities that are part of the group. However, the employer would want to be sure the timing of the training is appropriate. If a newly hired engineer in a tight-knit department has been having some difficulties with the social aspects of the position because he is on the autism spectrum, the employer would not want to suddenly provide a training with information on autism and social difficulties to that department.  A more general training on disabilities, the ADA and its confidentiality protections, accommodations, and how to participate in the interactive process would be more appropriate at that time.

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