Terch & AssociatesBlogEmployment LawSupporting Employees with Disabilities

Supporting Employees with Disabilities


October is disability awareness month and, despite other events dominating most conversations, it’s important to shine a spotlight on workers that are sometimes overlooked. In recognition of the month and in support of the differently abled members of our community, we’d like to offer some guidance for effectively addressing disability in the workplace. Like most aspects of HR, this will require touching on applicable laws, best practices, and HR strategy.


If any of our readers aren’t coming with HR experience, the following is a very basic summary of the legal requirements for disability in the workplace. It also introduces some terms that will be used heavily in the rest of the discussion. Those familiar with the basics should skip to the next heading.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it unlawful for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate against workers with disabilities, who can do the essential functions of a position, for any employment outcome such as hiring, training, or compensation. The Minnesota Human Rights Act makes discrimination against disabled workers unlawful for employers in Minnesota, and further makes it unlawful to not provide reasonable accommodations for employers with 20 or more employees.

A disability is a condition or group of conditions that permanently or chronically limits one or more major life activities. This definition was clarified by an amendment to the ADA in 2008 to set a low threshold for what a disability might be. A major life activity could be anything from “seeing” to “lifting objects” so a person that can only lift twenty pounds due to a permanent back injury, but has no other limits, would still be considered disabled. Disabilities must be evaluated at their worst effect on a worker a person with carefully managed diabetes still has a disability and is entitled to the same reasonable accommodations as somebody who is minutes away from a diabetic coma.

Essential functions are, broadly, the tasks for which a position exists to do. The ADA only protects workers that can do the essential functions of a job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. If a reasonable accommodation would allow a worker to do all the essential functions of a job, then that worker cannot be discriminated against based on their disability. If a worker with a disability is unqualified for a role or their disability cannot be accommodated in a way that safely allows essential functions to be completed, then they are not protected by the ADA for that job.

A reasonable accommodation is a change in or to the workplace, that an employer can provide without an undue burden, that would allow a disabled worker to have access to the same conditions of employment as a non-disabled worker.  Reasonable accommodations might be:

  • A ramp over stairs for movement-impaired workers
  • A larger computer screen for vision-impaired workers
  • Allowing an employee with low blood sugar to snack when they need to
  • Reassigning a worker to a job they’re qualified for without making them compete against other applicants

Reasonable accommodations are not:

  • Retrofitting a staircase to be an escalator
  • The latest and greatest laptop attached to a 60inch display
  • Unlimited time off

Finally, the way through which an employer learns about a disability and determines a reasonable accommodation is called the “interactive process”. When a worker mentions that they are disabled in a way that effects their work, the employer and the employee must discuss the limitations of the disability and possible solutions that the employer can provide. If the worker suggests an accommodation that the employer doesn’t consider reasonable, then they should discuss appropriate alternatives. Employers should not ask about disabilities that aren’t obvious and should not ask before extending a job offer if possible, but instead let employees address it if they feel they need to. Employees do not need to directly mention “disability” or “accommodation” to begin the interactive process; employers should err on the side of caution regarding whether they’ve been notified about an employee’s disability.

While this summary addresses the basics and introduces terms, it is not comprehensive. It is not legal advice. If you’re unsure about compliance with disability requirements for employers, you should contact Terch & Associates or another source that you trust.

Supporting Employees

But the above requirements are just the bare minimums, and competitive human resources management goes much further than mere compliance. By fully supporting your employees who have disabilities, you increase their organizational commitment and can leverage your relationship to decrease turnover and increase productivity, in addition to the advantages of being an ethical employer. To that end there are several resources and concepts that employers should keep in mind.

Job Accommodation Network

One of the best resources for employers with disability questions is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and provides free expert consultation for employers or individuals for almost any disability or accommodation topic, from skin disorders to tax advantages. JAN also maintains an online library for easy access, which includes a searchable accommodation database. If one of your employees has mentioned they have a limitation in the workplace, JAN can probably help you identify a solution, develop a strategy, and evaluate any blind spots that you might have.

Department of Employment and Economic Development

In addition to the federally funded resources, Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) provides in-person help from local sources. For businesses in Minnesota that need assistance supporting their disabled employees or expanding their recruitment efforts to appeal to disabled applicants, a great option is to contact DEED. DEED’s Employment Specialists will arrive on site, provide consultation or other services to management and employees, and follow up periodically to ensure everything is still going smoothly.  DEED is a resource that any Minnesota employers with disability questions should utilize.


Fostering inclusion beyond accessibility should also be part of your strategy. While having an accessible worksite and providing accommodations for essential functions is a start, it does not necessarily make employees feel included or fully supported and can sometimes serve to isolate them. After meeting the legal requirements, look to see if you’ve missed barriers to the social aspects of the workplace:

  • Is the breakroom as accessible?
  • Are after-work events able to be enjoyed by all?
  • If you have an employee with communication barriers, are you ensuring that you’re able to hear their input in addition to communicating your expectations?

Truly welcoming an employee and fully including them in your workplace can be the difference between retaining them for the rest of their career or pushing them out the door.

Job Crafting

If an employee is struggling with specific tasks due to a disability, you have the perfect trigger to identify if job crafting is a competitive choice in your organization. Job crafting is the process of rearranging assigned duties to develop a more favorable role. If, for example, a pair of employees have overlapping duties where they do both data entry and physical filing, but one has difficulty with physical filing, identify if both employees want to specialize in just one duty. While not usually that cut and dry, it’s possible that trading duties can be advantageous for both disabled employees and non-disabled employees, by providing a better balance of work that feels meaningful or engaging.

Generalize Accommodations

Many employers that have provided accommodations for essential functions have then realized that the accommodated task is more productive than the unaccommodated task. If you provided voice-to-text software for a role with a lot of typing or modified a process to use a foot pedal instead of a hand motion, you might have discovered an improvement for your process. Ultimately, accommodations make processes easier. If you now have access to data that shows a return on your accommodation investment in the form of increased productivity or reduced risk, generalizing that accommodation  to the rest of your employees could help their performance while reducing possible feelings of isolation for accommodated employees.

Leverage and Capitalize

Finally, once you’ve fully supported the employees that you do have, you might realize that doing so has provided you a competitive advantage for talent acquisition and retention. People that identify as disabled are roughly twice as likely to be unemployed. Leveraging your proven track record with overcoming barriers and supporting employees might help you capture a part of the labor market that your competitors can’t access. Here both DEED and the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) provide a wealth of free information and consultation to help businesses attract and retain qualified disabled workers.


Supporting workers with disabilities isn’t just a legal requirement, it can provide a competitive edge. Utilizing the resources available can take most of the financial and logistical burdens off an employer to accommodate an employee. Employers who are then able to foster inclusion and improve their internal systems will not only further increase employee performance, but also increase their employee retention. Finally, employers who can leverage this advantage and increase its scale will find themselves able to access a pool of qualified employees that their competitors cannot. All employers should strive to utilize their human resources in a way that is ethical and advantageous, and supporting your disabled employees meets that goal perfectly. As always if you need help with the technical or strategic aspects of disability in the workplace, or any other HR topic, feel free to contact Terch & Associates!


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