How to Accommodate Disabled Employees

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October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which was created to recognize the contributions and skills of American employees with disabilities. For many small to midsize businesses, having an employee suddenly become disabled (because of an accident or an illness) can be somewhat daunting if it’s a new experience for the employer.

In fact, some employers might not know how to properly accommodate a disabled employee; this can be detrimental to all parties involved. Only ten percent of small employers even know that there is a one in three likelihood of a worker between the ages of 35 and 65 suffering a serious disability, according to a 2002 study by the American Council of Life Insurers. If the employer isn't prepared to accommodate a disabled employee in their business, they might not have the tools in place necessary to welcome and accommodate the disabled employee when such an illness occurs.

As an accommodations specialist at Assurant Employee Benefits, a small to midsize business employee benefits expert, I've created some tips for working with employees who have disabling illnesses or injuries. These tips focus on how to work with a person who wants to come back to work. These tips will help you accommodate disabled employees and welcome them back to work.

Specific Steps for Working With Disabled Employees

  • Show support. Demonstrate emotional and social support by creating an environment that is caring and supportive. Coworkers may offer assistance with childcare, meals, rides to medical appointments and fundraisers.
  • Maintain contact. Keep in touch with phone calls and cards. This is especially important for direct supervisors but something coworkers can do as well.
  • Help the disabled employee keep their benefits. Look for ways to enable disabled employees to keep their benefits as long as possible, especially health and disability insurance. Keeping benefits can be critical to their recovery and, in the case of family health coverage, impact the well-being of their entire family.
  • Provide accommodations. Flexible schedules, part-time work, decreased travel, working from home, temporarily reduced responsibilities, and having a private rest area in the workplace can all help ill employees. If an employee is diagnosed with cancer, weakness and fatigue may be prominent when employees receive chemotherapy or radiation. The disabled employee may also benefit from workstation or workplace accommodations such as adaptive office equipment and furniture. Parking close to the building and having a wheelchair or motorized scooter available in the workplace can also be beneficial.
  • Welcome the employee back. Make an effort to welcome them back in a way that’s significant to them whenever possible. For example, some co-workers have shaved their heads for the benefit of “Locks of Love” or worn hats to show their support of ill employees who have lost their hair as a result of cancer treatments.

Additional Ways to Welcome the Disabled Employee Back to Work

Additional ideas for welcoming an employee returning to work following a disabling illness include:

  • Provide balloons, flowers, cards and /or a welcome back banner in an employee's workspace to show that the individual was missed. One employee group decorated the returning employee's whole cubicle with plants and motivational pictures.
  • Clear work out as necessary to enable an employee to return to a clean desk or work area, so he or she doesn't feel as if work was allowed to pile up while they were gone. Making sure the employee's responsibilities were well-covered during the entire time of their illness is positive for your customers and it relieves the ill employee's concerns about their job being taken care of in their absence.
  • Provide a short debriefing on changes that occurred while the employee was out so that he or she can quickly get up to speed. This may include process and procedural changes, staffing changes and benefit changes.
  • Schedule time with Human Resources staff shortly after the employee returns to work so that accommodation needs and return-to-work welcoming needs are ensured. Employees will also want to review the status of their individual benefits, sick or PTO time, and employment status.
  • Check up on the returned employee throughout the day to be sure everything is proceeding smoothly. This applies to both friends in the workplace and supervisors, who can provide reassurance that they are glad to have the employee back.
  • Provide a healthy, midday pick-me-up snack. This can be helpful since an employee's energy may be low in the first days back at work. Be sure to check any dietary restrictions the employee may have first.
  • Facilitating the employee's return on a part-time basis, gradually increasing the hours at work, can be helpful for the disabled employee's re-entry.
  • Provide the returning employee with simple, prepared meals, either frozen or easy to transport, that he or she can take home so they don't have to worry about preparing dinner after their first days back on the job.