Adapt technology to disabled staff … within your means

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in Human Resources

Issue: Various new technologies allow disabled people to be productive at work.

Risk: Courts say employers must provide such adaptive technologies in line with their resources.

Action: Here's how to draw the line on "excessive" accommodation requests, plus how to shop for adaptive technology.

If you have disabled employees, how far must you go to alter their work spaces to accommodate the disability?

That question often comes to a head when disabled employees ask for certain "adaptive technologies," such as Braille readers, magnified computer screens and voice-recognition software.

The ADA requires you to make "reasonable" accommodations; you don't need to do anything that would create an undue hardship. But courts have said in recent years that they expect employers to make adaptive technology changes in line with their financial resources.

Case in point: The EEOC recently won an $8 million judgment against an employer because it turned away a blind applicant for a telephone customer-service position. The company refused to buy and install special technology that allow blind people to hear text from their computer screens in one ear and a phone conversation in the other.

Because the company was large, the EEOC said it could have afforded the relatively inexpensive technology.

The lesson: The EEOC expects you to use adaptive technology when it's available and reasonably inexpensive.

Buying adaptive technology: 4 tips

1. Realize that adaptive technology doesn't work in a vacuum. Whatever you buy must work in concert with existing systems. If not, calculate the additional costs involved in making the product compatible. You may rather buy another product that costs a bit more but is fully compatible with your current systems.

2. Involve everyone. Employees operating the equipment should be comfortable with it. Work with IT to iron out compatibility and infrastructure problems ahead of time.

3. Consider hidden costs. Once you identify products, compare the total cost, not just the initial cost. Does the technology require training, and is it included in the price? What's its expected life cycle? Will it continue to be compatible with planned company technology changes? Should you lease or buy? Talk to people who have used the product.

4. Don't overlook potential tax credits. Eligible employers can earn federal tax credits for efforts to accommodate disabled people. Find details at www.eeoc.gov/facts /fs-disa.html.

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