About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with epilepsy, a disability that qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act (2000). And while I have written a bit on what that feels like (here and here), there is one additional perspective I haven’t had a chance to share: what it means to be a manager of a person with a disability. To that end, there a few tips I’d like to share with you.
Your employee may look ok...that doesn’t mean they are
While some employees have visible disabilities, chances are there is someone one your team who has what is known as invisible disabilities. Ranging from chronic conditions, learning disabilities, mood disorders and more, these disabilities often do not present themselves in visible way. Someone dealing with an invisible disability may have trouble concentrating, may be sleepy or sluggish, or may have to take off more time - either due to their conditions or the medications that they have to take.
Never ask an employee if they have a disability - rather build a trusting, safe relationship.
Build a trusting, safe relationship where they can disclose their disability to you if they are so inclined. Even though you may be wondering if an employee has a disability, do not ever ask ask an employee (or an applicant) outright if they have a disability. Doing so would violate federal law. This is something that an employee may choose to disclose if they would like. So how can you find out whether or not an employee needs help? Just ask them that simple question, “Is there anything I can do to help you do your job better?” That can sometimes open the door for them to ask for reasonable accommodations.
Know what the law says, and your obligation to uphold it.
As a manager, it is important to know what the ADA and ADAA require of you. To begin, employers, and thus managers, are prohibited from retaliating against applicants or employees asserting their rights under the ADA. This applies to both current employees - as well as applicants to a job. Also, if an employee requests reasonable accommodations - unless you can prove it would cause the organization undue hardship, you must respect and honor the request.
Don’t assume an employee cannot do something because of their disabilities - give them the chance to decide for themselves.
If an employee does disclose a disability, do your best to offer them challenging work. I had one situation at a past job where a project I had worked on for years was handed over to another manager. Rather than asking if I wanted to manage the project, my boss assumed it would be too much for me to handle. While I likely would have turned down the chance, as it required overtime work, I wish I had been asked first. Such a simple thing can really help improve employees' morale.
Work to fulfill the spirit of the law, not just the essence of the law.
If an employee requests and receives a reasonable accommodation, do your best to honor the spirit of what they are doing. For me, my reasonable accommodation was no more than a 40 hour workweek. Often, such a ‘limitation’ was no problem at all. But when the team was expected to put in extra time to meet a deadline, coworkers would whisper about why I wasn't "pulling my weight." What they didn't know was that if I did stay and work late hours, I was at increased risk of a seizure. My best managers often would step up, and set the example to grant me the flexibility I needed. I will never forget my bosses who acted with integrity, nor will I forget the bosses that also added to the whispers.
Finally, it is important, as a manager to send the message to the rest of your team that everyone of us is dealing with a battle that others cannot see. The most important thing as a manager is to build a relationship of trust and rapport with your direct reports that encourages an interactive and supportive dialogue. And this is a good lesson for anyone, whether working with a disability or not.