Accommodations in the Workplace

by Ed Hirtzel (she/her)

Teaching self-advocacy skills around accommodations for communication access should be taught young and early. But what if you didn’t learn how to advocate for yourself early on, or what if your communication needs have never been fully accommodated and so you’re not even sure where to start? 

While an early start is ideal, I’m here to tell you that it is also never too late. Even if you have communication access needs you’re not sure how to accommodate yet, even if you don’t know what the Department of Rehabilitation is, and even if you’ve experienced pushback in the past, there is an employment situation out there that can work for you with sufficient accommodation.

Self-advocacy has been part of my life since an early age. I have several disabilities; I’ve been Deaf from birth, and as I’ve aged I’ve acquired or discovered various mental health disabilities and disabling chronic illnesses. 

With respect to my Deafness, I was mainstreamed. While I had some exposure to American Sign Language as a child and have always identified with a culturally Deaf understanding of my experience in the hearing world, I was raised by hearing parents and was sent to hearing schools. My hearing aid, which I rarely used, and my IEP, which I can’t recall ever being involved in, were the only accommodations ever given to me until I became an adult. Obviously, these accommodations were not sufficient. So I had to make up my own, which largely consisted of sitting in the front of the class and reading course material in class instead of listening to long lectures. I believe many disabled people have similar experiences, even if they are more accommodated by the school system than I was: you have to figure out on your own what works. I did the same in college and grad school by approaching individual professors as needed instead of relying on my schools’ Offices of Disability Services. Frankly, the few experiences I’d had formally asking for accommodation ended so poorly that I didn’t trust any institution to provide me with any meaningful support, and I had no time or energy to invest in a complicated bureaucratic process that might not even give me what I needed.

If figuring out what accommodations work takes professionals with degrees years to do for their clients, I’m sure you can imagine how long it takes a person to figure out what they need just through their own trial and bitter error. Keep this in mind, disabled people, as we are talking about employment: your lived experience is a marketable skill. You are incredibly resourceful and flexible as a consequence of being made to move through a world that was not built with you in mind. 

While many of us have been getting services in some form or another since we were born, I still think my story is not all that unusual. I’ve heard that people seek services to the extent they need them, but I disagree. We seek services to the extent that we believe they’ll be helpful. I genuinely believed nobody wanted to accommodate me, and I lived that story for a long time, until it became impossible. 

It became impossible when I started seeking full-time employment.

At first, I didn’t tell potential employers I was disabled. I can fake hearing well in a controlled environment like an interview, so my strategy used to be “get my foot in the door and then try to make them accommodate me.” But that didn’t always work for me; it was like because I didn’t tell people I was Deaf right off the bat, it didn’t count, somehow. Once, at my request, an employer moved me away from one role that required answering a phone… into another role that still required, guess what, answering a phone. Another time, I had to quit a job because an employer would not stop contacting me exclusively by telephone call despite my repeated pleas for texts instead. Let’s not even talk about the time I was assured a third employer’s online training would be accessible and then there were no captions for either live or recorded content. 

Something had to change. Because of my repeated poor experiences with employers failing to accommodate my Deafness, I started looking at employment a different way. If you have experienced struggles with employment, this strategy may be helpful to you as well, or you may already be using a very similar strategy as you seek employment.

I thought about the overlap between my skills and the accommodations I required.

What were some areas where I might need accommodation? Well, for one, I can’t reliably understand phone calls or much audiovisual content. But thanks to my mainstreaming, I had very little idea what I might do about that in a workplace environment. What would that accommodation even look like? I started looking into accommodations that other Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, as well as people with auditory processing disorders, had made in the workplace, so that I could ask for them in my next place of employment. While 20 people with the same disability will have 20 different access needs, you too may find it helpful to talk with people with similar communication needs as you. They may regularly use accommodations you haven’t yet dreamed of, and they can help you figure out how to access them. I certainly found this to be the case: Autocaptioned video calls, voicemail transcription services, and even the simple option to have a flashing light alert me to a text on my phone were total revelations to me. 

For another, I had recently been diagnosed with treatment-resistant rheumatoid arthritis, which made my then-daily commute to and from work both fatiguing and painful. My RA also meant, and still means, that I have to frequently attend to my symptoms throughout the day in order to continue working. Work-from-home privileges or a flexible schedule would make my life much easier. In addition, working from home would also mean all my meetings could be autocaptioned, which provides me a massie benefit that meeting in-person doesn’t.

Now that I knew what my accommodations might look like – what were my skills? Well, thanks to constantly being shuffled in and out of inaccessible environments, I’m a critical thinker, and I pick up new skills quickly. Thanks to my years of having to translate my Deaf self to different hearing teachers, professors, classmates, and coworkers, I can adapt quickly to just about any team. And thanks to the years of reading my textbooks instead of listening to a lecture I couldn’t understand, I’m a very good reader and writer.

With this in mind, I started applying for lots of government and nonprofit jobs. My thought was twofold: one, government and nonprofit employers are often incentivized to hire disabled people, and I thought they were more likely to have both the will and the budget to accommodate me than a mom and pop shop. Two, government and nonprofit jobs frequently require a great deal of reading, analysis, and writing, which I am good enough at that I knew someone, somewhere, would be willing to accommodate me for.

I started disclosing on my applications and asking for accommodations during the interview process, which is something I’d always been advised against. The way I looked at it was I hadn’t been disclosing my disability up front for years, and it was causing me nothing but trouble. Even if this made my job search take longer, it was worth finding a place willing to do the necessary work of accommodating me. I would mention my disability on the application if there was a space to disclose, and if not, I would mention it during the first or second round of interviews. 

It was at this stage in my job search that I ran into DVU. To this day, I can remember how excited I was writing my cover letter. I was very hopeful that a disability advocacy organization might be more understanding of my accommodations needs. Furthermore, I saw that the DVU position was remote, which used to be much rarer in the pre-pandemic days. Since starting undergrad, it turns out that I had acquired treatment-resistant rheumatoid arthritis; after a few years of disease activity, a daily commute was now very painful on my stiff joints and fatigued brain. A remote position would allow me to more easily accommodate my body and the many doctors’ appointments I’d have to schlep it to (again, back when that was something we didn’t do virtually). 

I felt empowered by this sense of hope, so I approached my conversations with DVU staff and Board differently. I was very clear from my cover letter that I was mainstreamed Deaf and lived with disabling chronic illness. (I don’t necessarily recommend disclosing in the cover letter, but DVU was clear that they were welcoming self-advocates to apply, so I figured in this situation it couldn’t hurt.) I was also clear that I felt my experience as a Deaf, chronically ill person would be an asset to DVU: I could help provide insight as to how we could expand our work across fields of disabilities. If you are bringing your disability into the workplace, employers need to reframe their mindset and understand that bringing your knowledge into their workforce would really benefit them. You can help them do that by pointing this out: Disabled people are nearly a quarter of the world population, and we’re a full 25% of California. Regardless of your field, I guarantee you, in some form or fashion, your employer already serves disabled people. They just may not know it yet. And you have valuable experience in understanding and accommodating disabled people – namely, yourself! 

Of course, whenever we ask for accommodation, the possibility of denial looms over our shoulders. Most of us are more used to hearing “no” than we are “yes.” But it does not need to be this way. We see from the pandemic that accommodations are possible. In many fields, we can indeed work partly or totally from home. We can also provide hybrid options for teams with different access needs. We have chat options integrated into our virtual meeting platforms for those who may type to communicate. Heck, I can use Google Docs – a free technology that is relatively easy to learn – to help format a document for a screen reader. 

For me, self-advocacy journey is a combination of three things: learning how to jockey for a seat at the table, learning to ask for what I need to stay at the table, and, as Nina Simone sings, learning to leave the table when love is no longer being served. But that self-advocacy journey will look different for everyone depending on who you are and what else you are bringing to the table. As a white person who was also raised in class privilege, I’ve had systematic advantages that most disabled people don’t have: off the top of my head, examples include that I attended a school district where most people around me and in the books I was taught at least kind of looked like me, and I was consistently exposed to a wide range of technology at a very early age. Both of these things allowed me to conceive and seek out accommodations much earlier than I otherwise might have.

But, again, it should not be that way, and that’s why we are here today. All disabled people deserve to be able to work if we want, and all disabled people deserve accommodations in the workplace. What I’ve spoken about today is part of the approach I take in seeking accommodations in the workplace. I hope you find something useful for you, and leave the rest behind. Thank you for your time and your energy.

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