So what happens when an existing employee joins the ranks of having a disability?
First, the law kicks in. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that an employer initiate the ‚ÄúInteractive Process,‚Äù a bureaucratic sounding term which is really just about figuring out whether or not and how someone can continue to work.
As a disabled worker, you also have a right to ‚Äúmodified‚Äù or ‚Äútransitional‚Äù work, to give you the chance to stay on the job and get back to full employment.
Hold on now. Before you click to go somewhere else in boredom, let me get to the heart of why this is a centrally important topic for you personally.
Let‚Äôs say it‚Äôs you, and you‚Äôve just lost some hearing or vision from an illness, or you‚Äôve injured your back on the job, or you sliced off a couple of fingers in the kitchen (just a few of the almost infinite number of ways we fragile humans can become impaired). What would you want? To be sent off to collect benefits while you deal with having your life entirely changed, possibly going through medical treatment, and wrestling with a foreign and not-always-supportive bureaucracy, disconnected from the work and colleagues that are nothing less than a major part of your very identity?
Probably not. You‚Äôd want to keep working if you could. You spent years studying or training, and years getting good at what you do. You‚Äôre connected to a professional community, or you treasure the social community of the workplace, where you spend more time than you do with your family. Work is a source of being productive and valued, not to mention a source of income that you‚Äôve actually earned.
Now let‚Äôs say you‚Äôre a manager or business owner. What would you want? To have this person off the job entirely, having to hold their job (for at least twelve weeks, under the Family and Medical Leave Act), pay for a temp replacement (who won‚Äôt do the job as well), or make others take on more work, possibly paying overtime or burning them out? Then if the disabled worker doesn‚Äôt return, you need to recruit and interview and hire and train and wait for a new person to ramp up, then possibly do it all over again. Sound good?
Probably not. It‚Äôs a huge hassle, and very expensive. Period.
Here‚Äôs the good news: work is rehabilitative. When an employer does a good job with the interactive process, when everyone involved (employee, employer, physician, insurer) collaborates, then that worker is more likely to stay on the job, and will get back to full employment sooner. The data is already in. It‚Äôs true.
Not for everyone, of course. Some cases are complex and difficult. But it‚Äôs clear that the best path to what everyone wants ‚Äì a worker retaining the self-esteem, sense of productivity, and social connection to their work community; business keeping experienced workers and saving money ‚Äì is through committing to the Interactive Process, a spirit of adaptation, and giving people every chance there is to get fully back to work. Even if they have to sort paperclips for a while to get there.
This falls under the banner of ‚ÄúStay-at-Work/Return-to-Work,‚Äù a concept that is the focus of a global Disability Management movement. They understand that thinking in these terms is good for the individual and for business.
My favorite part: the business community is, in essence, embracing the priorities of the disability community. Disability advocacy has long focused on the ‚ÄúIndependence Model,‚Äù seeing a person as more than their impairments, looking at their ability and potential, not their limitations. Now business is getting on the same bus, because when you look at potential and think about how someone adapts, you get to keep good workers and save money.
The amount of lost quality of life for workers, and the amount of money wasted by business is immense. This is a disability issue that strikes directly at what everyone cares about most. ‚ÄúGoing on disability‚Äù as a first line tactic is a proven mistake of thinking. The law and the Interactive Process is how we all get the best chance at achieving the independence and success we all want.