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Hiring the disabled: theory into practice.

At Beatrice Leonard and Associates, of Oak Park, Ill., accommodations are a part of daily life, Owner and President Beatrice Leonard has worked in real estate for seven years. She also happens to be blind and use a leader dog.

"When the department sent me my broker's license, they sent one for my dog too," she says.

In her first position as a real estate associate, Leonard took notes for herself using a tape recorder instead of a computer. When she took her tests to become a broker, she used a reader who verbalized the questions and then punched her answers into a keypad. Now, as a broker, Leonard uses a talking computer to process all her contracts.

But while such accommodations are now commonplace for Leonard's realty group, many property managers and building owners have had little experience interviewing, hiring, or working with disabled employees.

And in fact, many of the discussions about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the property management field focus primarily on bringing buildings and grounds into compliance to accommodate disabled tenants and customers.

But given the ADA estimates that 43 million Americans have a disability, inevitably all managers will soon have to know more about hiring and accommodating disabled employees.

Following are just a few examples of questions that may crop up as property managers become personally involved with Title I of the ADA:

* What, if anything, do I need to change about my hiring practices?

* What are "reasonable accommodations" under the ADA?

* Are people out there hiring persons with disabilities, and what are the accommodations being made to enable the disabled to work effectively?

* Do these accommodations necessarily have to cost a lot of money to be fully implemented?

Hiring practices

If you have never hired someone with a disability, you may not be sure exactly how to go about it. To help employers understand their responsibilities during the hiring process, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has provided a legal overview (see Figure 1). However, just knowing the rules may not make taking that initial step any easier.

The important thing to remember in hiring is that you are looking for the most qualified candidate, disabled or not. Title I of the ADA simply attempts to give disabled people a fair shot at a job--not an unfair advantage.

It is also important to recognize that a person's physical or mental disability does not define their character. "A disabled person can be a nerd just like anyone else," Leonard says.

But now that we have this law, and people are becoming informed about disabilities, why aren't more people actually hiring disabled employees? The answer to this question is not simple, but fear and economic concerns often factor into people's hesitancies.

Getting over the jitters

Anytime you try something for the first time, there is a natural fear that everything might not turn out exactly as planned. After all, it only makes good business sense to be a little cautious before jumping into uncharted water--and the threat of possible lawsuits does not make taking a risk any more attractive.

But Dave Dailey, who has been working to accommodate people with disabilities for eight years, says that even after only one try, many people become converted believers in Title I of the ADA.

"I've had supervisors who I thought were going to run me over in the street the first three months," he says. 'A year later they are getting up at seminars and saying, 'I believe in this. It has been something that has been great for me.'"

Currently a technical manager for the Illinois Department of Transportation, Dailey recalls the trouble he had placing one deaf employee in a clerical position,

"I had one supervisor," he says, "who wanted everyone to sit at their desks and work all day--you got a 15 minute break, a lunch, and that was it. No talking."

At first the supervisor made it very clear that she was not happy about hiring this deaf man. "She demanded that I be up there every day to interpret for him and complained about what a headache I had made in her life," he says.

But then "the employer realized that this guy actually did just stay at his desk and didn't say anything to anybody, and his production was at the top of his unit." Dailey adds that after a while the supervisor began asking him for more disabled employees.

The price of accommodation

But beyond this initial fear of the unknown, one factor often stops even the least cautious would-be employers from hiring a person with a disability--money.

"One of the things the ADA has done is to put the fear of God into people that they are going to have to lay out all this money for accommodations," Dailey says.

Contrary to what many people think, however, accommodations do not necessarily mean big money. In fact, according to the Job Accommodation Network: 25 percent of accommodations did not cost anything; 57 percent of accommodations were between $1 and $500; and only 7 percent of the accommodations made cost more than $2,000.

"Many people do not even realize how easy it is to accommodate people," says Barbara Pon, manager of human resources for Wisconsin Bell.

While employers are not responsible for providing personal items like wheelchairs and hearing aids, they are responsible for providing anything that pertains to doing the essential functions of the job.

It is important to remember, however, that the final decision on any accommodation is up to the employer. This means that given three alternative methods of accommodating someone, there is nothing wrong with choosing the least expensive method, given that it is still effective.

"We usually try to provide whatever people need within reason," Pon says.

"Once in a while we have people who want the deluxe, gold-plated whatever," she says. "But we try to get them to see the company's situation, and nine times out of ten, they are happy with the accommodation we come up with."

Dailey adds that often a little imagination will get you just as far as a wad of cash.

"I've encountered a lot of situations where things like raising the desktop were necessary," Dailey says. "In that case, a couple of two-by-fours will do the trick--even if they don't look the greatest."

Seizing the opportunity

Part of the key to accommodating people, it seems, is to simply keep an open mind. Dailey has been doing this for so long now that not only does he not see hiring people with disabilities as a burden, he points out the benefits to the employer.

First, he says he has saved money by cutting down on the cost of retraining new employees every six months. The State of Illinois has many part-time clerical positions. In the past these were often filled by students or other people who just needed temporary work.

"We had many positions that were constantly filling and refilling because they didn't pay enough for most people, he says.

But because people with disabilities who are on state aid often have a limit to the amount of money they can earn, this type of job may be just what they are looking for.

Dailey says that by tapping the disabled population, he has found a more stable group who may not be as likely to leave after only a few months. He also mentioned that for some disability groups, routine, clerical work is not boring, but attractive.

"A lot of times when you get into rote, repetitive, boring office-type jobs--people don't want these. They are bored frustrated by them."

For some people with cognitive disabilities, however, this repetition is useful and helpful. "Often they don't get as bored, they stay in the position longer, and their production is higher;'

Pon adds that in her mind, following Title I only makes good business sense. "We need our employees to be focused on the customer, not cranky because their chair is uncomfortable .... It pays off to me as a business person to make the changes," she says.

Making accommodations work

Another key to successful accommodations is simply asking new employees what they require.

"Many times people will know what they need to do a task better than any specialist since they have often been dealing with their disability all their lives;' says Doug Anderson of the Great Lakes Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center.

He tells a story of one employer who brought in a rehabilitation engineer and an occupational therapist to develop an accommodation for a lock and dam operator with a disability.

They were examining the possibilities of putting in a complicated mechanical system when the dam operator interrupted and told them that he thought he could handle the operations without any accommodations at all.

Although this is probably an extreme example, it is good policy never to assume that just because a person has a specific visible impairment, he or she will need a specific accommodation.

Staying out of the courtroom

Since Title 1 of the ADA became law in July of 1992, a third stumbling block for employers has been the fear of litigation. When the law went into effect for businesses with 25 or more employees, many attorneys speculated that violations during the hiring process would be the most frequent cause of complaints.

Statistics show however, that so far this has not been the case. In the first year, only 1,488 (or 12.9 percent) of the 11,550 total charges filed with the EEOC were over hiring issues.

Hopefully what these statistics mean is that people have already familiarized themselves with the law as it relates to hiring. But since the law will change to include employers with 15 or more employees in July of 1994, it becomes important even for small companies to know their responsibilities under the law.

Unfortunately, one statistic that is not so encouraging is that failure to provide reasonable accommodation is the second most frequent complaint filed with the EEOC thus far.

So how can employers make sure that they are doing enough? The answer to this, according to Sharon Rennert, a lawyer with the U.S. EEOC, is simple. "Under the ADA it is the employee's responsibility to let the employer know that they need a reasonable accommodation or that there is a difficulty or hmitation in performing their job.

"So if the employee is not giving any indication and seems to be doing the job sufficiently, then the employer should rely on that."

Going beyond the call

Obviously, most employers want to keep their employees happy. And for the most part, providing reasonable accommodations accomplishes this goal. But although these include physical changes to the workplace and changes in work schedules (see Figure 2), they may not always address the root of your particular employee's problem.

Dailey tells another story of a deaf man who went to work in a factory. Since he really did not need to communicate to do his job, no one bothered to talk to him. After a year and a half, the employee was angry, frustrated, and tired of isolation.

In this case, although communication was not one of the essential functions of this employee's job, it did contribute to his overall job satisfaction, and as a resuit, factored into his performance.

Although not required by the ADA, the factory worker's manager enrolled in a sign language class, and in doing so, helped turn a bad situation around and learned a lot in the process.

So if the ultimate goal is to foster the development of satisfied, productive employees, it may be necessary to look beyond the law and focus instead on your particular situation.

Accommodating creatively

When you do start hiring people with disabilities, it may be helpful to know what others in real estate have already done to accommodate different disability groups creatively.

It is easy to treat accommodations as something that only applies to the disabled, but sometimes they may even help make a job easier for everyone involved.

At one real estate agency, employees working with the Job Accommodation Network were able to accommodate an agent with a learning disability.

"This particular agent had trouble writing information down cohesively" says D.J. Hendricks, assistant project manager for the network.

What often is not understood about people with learning disabilities is that even though they have average to above average intelligence, they may have difficulty receiving, processing, or expressing information.

Most of the agents at the company would go on site and simply write down everything that the buyer might be interested in about the property. Remembering what to look for next, and writing everything down in an understandable fashion, however, was a problem for this agent.

To solve the problem the company designed a checklist of items to look for that included things like: dimensions of rooms, locations of fireplaces, kitchen island or no, and appliances.

"The checklist just served as a series of prompts for the agent," Hendricks says, "so he or she wouldn't get stuck trying to remember what the next step in the process was supposed to be."

But the interesting thing about this example is that this checklist is probably something that everyone at the company could benefit from using-- not just the one agent.

For people with physical disabilities, obviously once you have brought the building and grounds into compliance under Title III, you have probably already completed most of the changes you will need to make for employees.

But dealing with daily tasks may require some case-by-case review. Hendricks says that she has received several phone calls from realty offices with the same problem: how do you make filing systems more accessible for people in wheelchairs?

Since using a horizontal file system sometimes presents a problem, she suggests trying a lateral system. "Lateral files take up a little more floor space, but they look great, and have worked very nicely," she says.

Another alternative that several realty offices decided on was to simply divide tasks. If you have an employee who has trouble bending down for files, and another who does not, it might be easiest to have one person do most of the filing and the other do most of the typing.

At Rubloll in Chicago, Senior Vice President Jim Kinney says that "splitting the job description or the job" is not only an option, but is becoming more and more necessary as a way to relieve over-burdened agents. "It is becoming a trend in the industry.... It's too much to expect one person to be on 24 hours a day."

Although this particular idea evolved as a solution to other problems, it provides another example of how an accommodation may serve many different purposes.

Because realty and property management is such a mobile industry, many people automatically assume that people with physical limitations would not be able to perform the essential functions of the job--including traveling around to sites.

But for employees in wheelchairs, Hendricks says some real estate agencies have provided car hand controls that can be easily installed and removed in any vehicle.

For the hearing impaired, many offices are now installing Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf. Depending on the severity of the disability, special phone headsets are also available to amplify the sound.

The final barrier

With all the talk about accommodations, you might think that every disabled person would be thrilled with the ADA. Surprisingly, Beatrice Leonard did not welcome the Americans with Disabilities Act with unmitigated joy. She calls the Act both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time.

While she recognizes that the ADA has done a lot to ensure equal employment for people with disabilities, she says that it has also taken a toll on people's attitudes toward the disabled population.

"When people feel pressured that they have to do something, they get resentful," she says.

So, perhaps it is not so surprising that Leonard says the most difficult obstacle she had to overcome was not any of the physical logistics of doing her job, but people's attitudes toward her.

"I had a hard time getting people to believe that I could do the job."

Currently, Leonard is looking into property management, but she knows that for her, getting into the field will not be easy.

Although she feels she could perform the essential functions of the job, she also realizes that convincing owners of this might prove more difficult than actually doing the work.

"Owners have a right to take bids from a lot of different companies... and when they see that you are disabled, they often will just take another bid," she says.

Leonard is hopeful, however, that as people become more familiar with the law, and more accustomed to working with people who are disabled, that attitudes, as well as barriers, will begin changing.

Katherine Anderson is associate editor of the Journal of Property Management

FIGURE 1

An Employer's ADA Hiring Guidelines

* An employer must provide an equal opportunity for an individual with a disability to participate in the job application process and to be considered for a job.

* An employer may not make any pre-employment inquiries regarding a disability, but may ask questions about the ability to perform specific job functions and may, with certain limitations, ask an individual with a disability to describe or demonstrate how he or she would perform these functions.

* An employer may not require pre-employment medical examinations or medical histories, but may condition a job offer on the results of a post-offer medical examination, if all entering employees in the same job category are required to take this examination.

* Tests for illegal drugs are not medical examinations under the ADA and may be given at any time.

* A test that screens out or tends to screen out a person with a disability on the basis of disability must be job-related and consistent with business necessity.

* Tests must reflect the skills and aptitudes of an individual rather than any impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills, unless those are job-related skills the test is designed to measure.

Provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

FIGURE 2

Reasonable Accommodations

"Reasonable accommodations" are any changes in the work environment or in the way tasks are usually done that results in an equal employment opportunity for an individual with a disability.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, such an accommodation might be anything from simply modifying work schedules, to more major changes like making facilities accessible and usable.

The rest of the list includes:

* Job restructuring.

* Instituting flexible leave policies.

* Reassigning workers to a vacant position.

* Acquiring or modifying examinations, training materials, and policies.

* Providing qualified readers.

* Providing qualified interpreters.

An employer has to make a reasonable accommodation unless it can be shown that the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the operation of its business.

"Undue hardship" is defined by the ADA as an action that is excessively costly, extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.

Obviously, what would be undue hardship at a small company would not be an undue hardship at a huge corporation. The ability to make these accommodations will depend on the firm's budget and resources,

Resources

For a good resource on how to meet the needs of those with specific disabilities, contact the Job Accommodation Network, West Virginia University, 918 Chestnut Ridge Road, Suite 1, P.O. Box 6080. Morgantown, WV 26506-6080, (800) 232-9675. The network is a service provided by the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Other sources available to employers include: Regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers, (800) 949-4ADA; your state Department of Rehabilitation; or your state's Center for Independent Living.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Anderson, Katherine
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:3298
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