From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team
"I would really like to have someone to support me when I attend meetings with my employer. Can that be considered a reasonable accommodation?" "Can my wife attend my accommodation meeting with me?" "My mom thinks she needs to go with me when my employer asks to talk to me about a performance problem. Can she do that?"
These are just a sampling of the frequent questions JAN callers ask about having a support person accompany them to various employee / employer meetings. According to informal guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), having a support person present at meetings can be a form of reasonable accommodation that an employer must consider if an employee needs the support because of a disability.
What types of disabilities might a person have that would make the accommodation of a support person beneficial? Someone with mental health impairments might need support in the form of a person to help take notes if concentration and / or memory are difficult. Individuals who have difficulty managing emotions, stress, or anxiety may find a support person comforting, encouraging, and necessary 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 mental health impairment 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 interactive accommodation meeting, a performance evaluation, or disciplinary counseling. Sometimes during the above mentioned types of meetings, there can be several people present on the employer's side. Just having a support person present can alleviate feelings of being alone, outnumbered, overwhelmed, and / or nervous.
Certainly employees with intellectual disabilities may need to bring someone with them to a performance evaluation or disciplinary meeting to help ask questions about the purpose of the meeting, to help the employee understand the evaluation, and to explain the job evaluation results. Employers that are about to take disciplinary action against an employee with intellectual disabilities will want to make sure that the employee fully understands the purpose of the meeting and any consequences that may come from the performance or conduct issues. Having a support person who knows the employee and his/her abilities may be an asset in communicating the information to the employee, and assisting in the comprehension of that information.
Now the question arises as to who might be the most appropriate person to provide the support. In informal guidance, the EEOC says that it might depend on the situation as to whether the person is another employee or co-worker, or whether someone from outside the workplace might be more appropriate. Because it is an employer's responsibility under the ADA to provide an effective accommodation, the employer needs to determine if a co-worker could provide the needed support and if not, then the employer needs to consider allowing someone from outside of the workplace to serve as the support person. For example, when an employee has an intellectual disability, a job coach, family member, or other support person familiar with the employee's strengths and weaknesses would most likely be able to offer the necessary support.
When trying to determine effective accommodations, employers should never overlook a full conversation with the employee. Engaging the employee in the interactive accommodation process can truly shed light on how the accommodation is to work and, in the case of a support person, who can provide the appropriate needed support.
The following are two examples of employees who needed a support person to accompany them to a meeting with their employers:
An employee with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had difficulties with concentration and memory. She felt that allowing her spouse to accompany her to an accommodation meeting with her supervisor, the human resources representative, and the general manager of the hotel where she was employed would help not only to bolster her confidence and provide moral support, but also to assist her in staying focused on the meeting, remind her of the points she wanted to discuss, and help take notes on the discussion.
The mother of a grocery store employee with Down syndrome wanted to be present when the store manager discussed performance issues with her son. She felt that by attending the meeting she could insure that her son would fully understand the steps taken by the employer to correct the problem behavior. She also believed that she was in a position to reinforce his behavior daily at home. She asked for the accommodation of accompanying her son to any meeting the employer might schedule to discuss the performance and /or conduct issues her son might have.