submitted by Sandy Slade, Registered Social Worker, Employment Support Worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association-PEI Division, and the Founding Executive Director of ADHD PEI.
Accommodation is a loaded term. From academia to the workplace, it brings with it a kind of anxiety and tension between the business and the employee. Today, we will unpack the history of this word (and the associated anxiety), what it means in legal sense, and how it relates to the concept of neurodiversity.
My father is a paraplegic. Hospitalized when I was 16, he lost all feeling and most of his function below his waist. He could not return home until a ramp to the front door was installed. He required an accommodation. “Accommodation”, according to Dictionary.com, comes from the Latin verb accommodāre, meaning “to make fit.” Its root word, the Latin commod(us), means “fitting” or “suitable.” We had to change the environment for my Dad to fit.
When it comes to work, there is a similar concept, the “duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship”. Individuals have a Charter-protected right against discrimination based on a disability.
The PEI Human Rights Commission website states: “Accommodation is necessary to ensure that employees with protected characteristics have equal opportunities, access and benefits.”
As an example, my father could, in theory, work in a call center. If their office was not wheelchair accessible, then he could request an accommodation to work from home. The accommodation has to be reasonable and does not cause ‘undue hardship’ on the employer. What that will mean changes on a case-by-case basis.
The concept of “accommodation” can be a bit fraught. When an employee requests an accommodation, there may be a fair bit of anxiety for most managers/business owners. Sometimes when people hear “accommodations,” what really comes to mind is risk. “Is this person going to be able to do the job? Is this going to take a lot of my time and money?”
Then there are concerns that stem from stigma. “Are they trying to take advantage of me? Are they just trying to get out of their work?” They may also start to question the employee’s competence. The employee may be risking their job by making a request for accommodation.
They also risk being labeled as lazy, weak, or a potential problem if their disability is an invisible one. Most conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella are invisible. Neurodiverse people often are not aware they have the right to accommodations, and those who do are often afraid of the stigma associated with self-disclosing.
With the current problem laid out, we can pivot to solutions. The biggest need is more education. Many accommodations require little to no money. It could be as simple as giving people the option of moving from an open office environment to a private space to work if they need it.
COVID-19 has already radically shifted our understanding of the workplace. Perhaps someone requests one day a week to work remotely, as there are less distractions at home than in the office and they can be more productive that way. That seems a lot more reasonable now that our expectations around what work looks like have changed so much during this time.
We get to choose the work world that we come back to after this is over. We can make the environment fit the employee by having more conversations about accommodation more often. We can structure the workspace and the workday to optimize performance and productivity.
As an example, allow those with dyslexia to use the voice-to-text software they need, so they can send emails faster. Ideally, I believe we need to move from our current stigma and costs/deficits-focused framework to seeing accommodations as a tool to unlock the potential of countless individuals struggling with not meeting their potential or who have given up on the job market altogether because we have not built them the ramp they need.
When companies and managers embrace Neurodiversity in the workplace, they get access to different perspectives and skill sets. This puts them at a competitive advantage, while also creating a more accepting and understanding world.
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