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Business Officer Magazine
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The Cost Benefit of Accommodation

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network helps higher education institutions create an inclusive work environment for employees with disabilities.

By Apryl Motley

"Low cost, high impact." That's the message the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), based at West Virginia University in Morgantown, communicates to employers throughout the country about providing workplace accommodations to employees with disabilities.

 A service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, JAN offers free consulting and information about job accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the employability of people with disabilities. Of the 40,000 inquiries JAN fields each year, 50 percent of those contacts come from employers of all types, including colleges and universities.

"The focus of our efforts is on accommodation that may mean doing the work differently, but that could benefit everyone and result in them doing their jobs better," says JAN codirector Anne Hirsh. She notes that employers sometimes get bogged down in trying to understand an employee's disability or medical condition rather than focusing on actual job performance.

Calculating Cost

How much does it cost to make workplace accommodations? Between January 2004 and July 2012, JAN worked in partnership with the West Virginia University School of Applied Social Sciences and the University of Iowa's Law, Health Policy, and Disability Center to interview approximately 1,900 employers that had contacted the service for assistance. Employers participating in the study  indicated that 57 percent of the accommodations they made cost nothing. Accommodations that did require funding cost them, on average, about $500.

Consider this scenario as outlined in JAN's "Accommodating Educators with Disabilities" publication: A college professor who had incurred a traumatic brain injury needed to reschedule departmental meetings and classes she taught to after 11:00 a.m. so that she could use the uninterrupted morning hours to get her planning, studying, and administrative duties done. There was no cost for this accommodation.

Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau data, JAN estimates that close to 1.1 million educators from preschool teachers to postsecondary professors and instructors could be in need of job accommodations. Since October 2011, there has been an increase in contacts from employers with questions about accommodations due to new EEOC guidance on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 that broadens the definition of disability, and which means more employees may be entitled to workplace accommodations, says Hirsh.

As the need for workplace accommodation grows, JAN is one resource higher education leaders can use to address this dimension of diversity and inclusion. The service's just-in-time training module series includes videos, webcasts, transcripts, and handouts available from JAN's Web site. JAN consultants can also facilitate face-to-face training or live question-and-answer sessions for colleges and universities that want to arrange conference calls to reach a larger group across multiple campuses or institutions, says Hirsh.

"The institutions that bring me in to speak want to be leaders in diversity and inclusiveness," says Beth Loy, JAN's principal consultant and an adjunct assistant professor at West Virginia University. "Most often a situation has occurred that they didn't know how to resolve, and JAN is able to provide a solution," she continues. While institutions incur no speaker fees for on-site training, travel costs must be reimbursed.

Factoring in the Benefits

Loy acknowledges that, like other employers, higher education institutions continue to worry about the cost of accommodation. "They think it will be expensive, and that if they make accommodations for one employee, they'll have to do it for everyone." Loy notes that she and other JAN consultants are often able to counter those arguments, especially when employers understand that common-sense solutions are often readily available. For instance, an accommodation for an employee who suffers from migraine headaches brought on by light sensitivity might be accomplished by modifying the workplace dress code policy to allow the employee to wear sunglasses. Similarly, an amplified headset might be all an employee with a hearing impairment needs to improve communication with colleagues and customers.

Not to be overlooked are the harder-to-quantify benefits employers receive when making accommodations within their workplaces. These include increased employee retention and diversity, improved worker productivity and morale, and reduced workers' compensation costs.

One strategy for anticipating costs associated with an accommodation is to consider this aspect of diversity and inclusion when first discussing any new initiatives at your institution. "Accessibility should always be on the table no matter what you are developing," Hirsh says. "Ideally, it should be discussed at the beginning of any project."

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Maryland, writes on higher education issues for Business Officer.