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Courts require you to adapt technology for disabled staff

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in HR Management,Human Resources

The world of disability accommodation is complex. New adaptive technologies hit the market every day. How can employers keep up?

The answer varies depending on your organization's resources. Large companies, such as Microsoft and General Motors, employ task forces that monitor technology and address employees' accommodation requests. Courts expect your organization to make adaptive technology changes in line with its resources.

Case in point: The EEOC recently won an $8 million judgment against EchoStar Corp. because the company turned away a blind applicant, even though he had received specialized training for the open position.

The EEOC says EchoStar refused to use Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software, a special program that allows blind people to hear a voice reading text off their computer screen in one ear and a telephone conversation with a customer in the other. The software is designed for customer service reps.

The EEOC claimed EchoStar could have installed software with little or no hardship. EchoStar countered that the software wouldn't work with its computer system. But the EEOC found at least three other companies with similar computer systems that had suc-cessfully used the JAWS software.

The lesson: Employers are expected to use adaptive technology when it is available and relatively inexpensive.

Handling accommodation requests

The accommodation process starts when an applicant or employee makes an accommodation request. Super-visors must know what to do and who to carry that request to.

Organizations should choose one person to whom supervisors can refer accommodation requests, such as an HR director or ADA coordinator. That person, the employee and his immediate supervisor should meet as soon as possible to discuss the matter.

The coordinator should explain the organization's obligation under the ADA. This is also the time to determine if the employee is truly "disabled" within the meaning of the ADA. (For help in making that decision, go to www.eeoc.gov/types/ada.html.)

Gather all relevant information about the employee's condition, including diagnosis, prognosis and restrictions. Relevant medical information should be collected from treating physicians. Keep the information private.

If you determine the employee is disabled under the law, you and the employee can put accommodation ideas on the table. If some sort of adaptive technology is appropriate, look to Microsoft or other software manufacturers for appropriate software.

Key point: The ADA only requires employers to make "reasonable" ac-commodations that won't cause an "undue hardship." Plus, those accommodations must be proportional, meaning you aren't required to make every corner of your building comfortable for employees with disabilities. You need to take only those steps that are necessary to allow the employee to perform the core tasks of his or her job.

Employers determine what is reasonable and proportional. But if you determine an accommodation is unreasonable or causes an undue hardship, gather facts to back your case.

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