"Employers are often a little bit fearful of accommodation issues," notes Andy Winnegar, former director of New Mexico Technology Assistance Program (NM TAP) and now an independent consultant on employment and disability issues. When it comes to interviewing, hiring, and retaining individuals with disabilities, human resource (HR) departments "just don't have experience with it, particularly if they are a small business."
It's why the Disability Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC) Southwest ADA Center teamed with NM TAP to draft the Small Business Accommodations Policy, Winnegar explained in a phone interview with ATPN in February. "We figured if they had these policies and procedures in place for their own employees, as well as for applicants, they'll have something to refer to, feel less overwhelmed, and ultimately hire more qualified people with disabilities."
The "policy" is a combination template and learning tool for businesses looking for some hand-holding when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It's a document adapted from the policy and procedures created for the state of New Mexico in 2004. That year, Governor Bill Richardson called for state agencies to increase their hiring of people with disabilities and Winnegar (also a former deputy director of NM DVR) was at the table charged with how to carry it out. The process, he reflects, "took a long time with a policy committee working through both agencies' own policies as well as the state HR and ADA coordinators, but we had a good chance to test it and get a lot of the details worked out."
That was hard work the DBTAC Southwest ADA Center saw as an opportunity. The Center, whose mission is to promote voluntary compliance with the ADA, contracted with NM TAP to take the newly crafted state policy and adapt it for the small business community.
It's not just HR departments, Winnegar notes, but also supervisors within companies who can benefit by this template. The document lays out suggested procedures for making reasonable accommodations, including a system of accountability. And it helps educate employers on the limits of the ADA, the parameters created to protect businesses from undue hardship. Used appropriately, the template can jump-start more than just compliance-on-paper, but also the education businesses need to adopt responsible accommodations practices that are really in their best interest anyway.
For example, one pitfall businesses frequently fall into, Winnegar emphasizes, is the tendency to move a little too quickly to long-term disability instead of making accommodations that might actually benefit the employer. "They just don't have enough information about the technologies and things out there for accommodations, and also, really, it's just easier for them to put somebody into the disability benefits process because it's a process they know."
The goal of the "model" Small Business Accommodations Policy, then, is to help HR departments get equally comfortable with the process for retaining and hiring qualified individuals who have disabilities. And talking to businesses about retaining their current trained employees, Winnegar observes, is a good entry point for initiating strong interest in learning about making reasonable accommodations. Plus it lays the groundwork of experience that will ultimately build a business community less fearful of hiring and working with qualified individuals who also happen to have disabilities.
Download the NM TAP Small Business Accommodations Policy (RTF)
Archived webinars sponsored by DBTAC Southwest ADA Center (part II makes use of the NM TAP document):
Developing a Successful Reasonable Accommodation Process (Part II) presented by Julie Ballinger, Disability Rights and Issues Consultant, on January 26, 2011.
Developing a Successful Reasonable Accommodation Process (Part I) presented by Julie Ballinger, Disability Rights and Issues Consultant, on January 19, 2011