The task of evaluating the job site for a disabled employee can be a complex one, but breaking down the job into its individual components can simplify the evaluation procedure. This article describes the requirements and process used to evaluate, design and implement workplace strategies and technology for a new employee who has a disability.
It goes without saying that the evaluator should be an expert in the needs of workers with disabilities. He or she should also have up-to-date knowledge of technology available for workplace accommodation. The technology used by people with disabilities is changing even more rapidly than technology used by the general public. This makes it imperative for evaluators to spend at least 10% of their time keeping current with new products. Evaluators should try to attend related conferences such as the "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" conference, sponsored by California State University, Northridge (March in Los Angeles) and Closing the Gap sponsored by "Closing the Gap" (October in Minneapolis). There are many good newsletters dealing with the problems of workplace accommodation. Also most of the companies providing technology for people with disabilities maintain a mailing list and send out product announcements and other items of interest.
The evaluator should get to know the applicant. As with any applicant, people with disabilities have a wide range of capabilities, education and experience, related to both their jobs and technology. Emphasis should be placed on understanding the applicant's background, as that will help determine levels of training and early productivity expectations. Future aspirations of the applicant will help determine accommodations that will be adaptable to the the employee's job growth.
Get a copy of the job description prior to visiting the company. This should be examined in detail prior to visiting the job site. Then make an appointment to discuss the job with management. Learn what the decision-makers expect of people who do this job. Ask about limitations associated with the overall environment. What physical space will be assigned to the applicant? The evaluator will need to know if there is sufficient space for things like wheelchair maneuvering and specialized equipment. Determine the financial goals of the company. If the company is paying for accommodations, there are probably expectations in this area.
What is the current level of technology used in this job? An understanding of computer technology used in the job is essential. Most access technology is closely associated with operating systems, software and hardware. Are there technology upgrades in the near future? Most companies are moving into computer systems that use graphics and multi-media presentation. Local area networks are also the rule at many companies. Adapting a network takes skill at resolving conflicts between various hardware and software packages. Care must be taken so that the applicant is not equipped with _dead end_ access technology.
This is also a good time to answer any questions management might have about dealing with a disabled employee. Some people have questions that they might be uneasy asking the applicant, but they might be more comfortable talking with the evaluator.
The next step is an on-site appraisal of the workplace. Start with general accessibility. Is the building accessible? Many buildings have some accessibility already. Some have almost none. Make sure that it is accessible for the applicant. For instance, if the applicant is blind, check for Braille numbers in the elevator and tactile methods to distinguish restrooms and other facilities. Do an appraisal of the office assigned to the applicant. Look for any barriers to your particular client. If the applicant uses a wheelchair, be sure to carefully determine building accessibility. Pay special attention to office layout, corridors, restrooms, and emergency exits.
Lines of Communication
While on-site, talk with some of the other employees doing the same job. Sometimes what they actually do may vary from the job description. What are the routine duties of the job? Prioritize activities so that important tasks are made a high priority. What are the mobility requirements? If the employees must go to other areas as part of the job, the evaluator should check for barriers along the way and at the other locations.
How is information acquired? Information is the most important part of any job. Make sure that all necessary information is covered in the evaluation. How is the current technology used? Usually employees only use a portion of the technology in computer systems. Make a list of the most important parts. Once again, take this opportunity to answer any questions that employees might have about working with a disabled co-worker.
People who will be working with the applicant will be more comfortable if they know a few basics. For example, don't pet or distract guide dogs. It's OK to ask if a disabled person wants help. This is a good time to search for the _mentor_. Most offices have one person who seems to know how everything works. It is usually a person who likes to help others. Spend a little extra time with that person as he or she will probably take the applicant underwing.
During this phase it is important to start with what sort of access technology is available for the systems that this company uses. There are many access products out there, but chances are the list can be narrowed down by finding out which products will work in the company environment. Most often vendors of access technology know whether their product will work correctly in a given environment. It helps to ask for other customers who have the same kind of set up. The pitfalls can often be quickly determined by talking to other users in the same situation. The main mission is to match the access technology to the job and the preferences of the applicant.
This part can be tricky. For instance, let's say that the applicant is blind and the job requires programming. Writing programs is very exacting work. It's important to have every comma in its proper place on the line. Some programming languages even are sensitive to column placement. The obvious choice seems to be refreshable Braille as it gives the user exact representations of the line, but be careful. The applicant may not be a proficient Braille reader, and he might prefer voice output instead. If the job also requires reading a lot of online documentation or email, the evaluator might want to recommend voice and Braille together.
Don't forget the future needs of your client. Make sure that access products have a migration path for the next level of technology. The company might be using DOS text mode applications now, but plans to migrate to Windows in the near future. The transition for the applicant will be easier if the access products also support Windows. Chances are the basics won't change from the DOS to the Windows version, but if a vendor change is necessary, the applicant will have to learn a completely new access product. Try to understand how all accessibility products fit together and whether _bridges_ will need to be built between them. Often vendors will have special adaptations so that their product works smoothly with a product that complements it. For instance, some screen readers can connect to screen enlargers so that as the focus of one changes, it drags the focus of the other along, allowing the user to receive both speech and large print at the same time.
This is the most important phase of job evaluation. The management of the company will respond most favorably if the report covers every aspect of accommodation as well as the costs involved. If the report is complete, it will give management a clear picture of the entire process, including the costs, leaving nothing to chance. It should answer every question before it's asked. The following is a suggested outline of a good report.
- What needs to be done prior to applicant arrival
- Physical barriers that need to be addressed
- Access technology that needs to be acquired and set up
- Customising required for this environment
Training is a very important issue with job modifications, but one that is all too often overlooked. The typical applicant will often require training before starting a new job. The training should include how the mainstream systems work, as well as how the adaptive technology relates to the total working environment.
It's always good to schedule a follow-up session to see if the accommodations are working well and to make any minor modifications to improve productivity. The goal is always for the employee with a disability to learn and function with the same efficiency as others, but the reality is that sometimes there is more for the disabled employee to learn. It's important to explain that to management.
A complete job evaluation ensures the employee with a disability will be competitive with his or her peers and will be able to meet career objectives.
Frank DiPalermo is currently the President of Ability Consulting Services, a company chartered to provide consulting services to corporations and individuals that need to meet the requirements of computer users with disabilities. He formerly was the Vision Product Planner with IBM Special Needs Systems and led the Screen Reader/2 development team in making the OS/2 GUI accessible to the blind. To contact Frank call 512 258-1600 or send email: