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  • Writer's pictureKelly Tennant

Asking for Accommodations at Work

Coming out of summer and into fall, it seems like work is on a lot of people's minds and workplace accommodations are something that I'm discussing a lot in client sessions.

So many employees and employers are unaware of the legal aspects of accommodation and too often lazy employers are not doing their due diligence in accommodating disabled employees, often in very discriminatory ways (whether that discrimination is intentional or not is another tangent).

So if you've ever thought that having workplace accommodations would be helpful for you (and honestly, nearly everyone benefits from workplace accommodation of some sort!), let's talk more about what you can and should expect from this process.

Scenario 1: You're a long-time employee and acquire a disability/chronic illness that is now affecting your ability to do your job in the same capacity as you could when you were able-bodied/well. How do you bring this up with your employer?

1) Figure out who manages these sorts of requests. Is it your direct manager or is it HR? At some point, both parties will need to be involved so starting either place is not a bad idea. If they are not the first person you need to talk to, they will hopefully direct you to the right person.

2) Start with disclosure. Share as much or as little as you are comfortable. The bare minimum is disclosing that you have a new disability (or disabling condition if disability still feels like an icky word for you to say). Using the term disability is important because it's that term that provides you protection from discrimination under the Human Rights Codes. Then say that you would like to discuss some workplace accommodations that would support you in continuing to do your job well. (This is what your employer ultimately cares about: that you can still work.)

3) Know what you want going into this conversation. Don't leave it up to them to decide, because they will 9 out of 10 times screw you over (again, intentionally or not is another tangent). An amazing resource for helping you figure out what you need is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). They have an A to Z library of disability accommodations which can be found here: A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations (

4) Know your rights. Each province has its own Human Rights Code. Google to find yours and read it thoroughly. Reach out to a legal aid organization or book a (usually free) consultation with an employment lawyer if you need help interpreting the laws and how they apply to your individual situation. Generally, the most important things to keep in mind are duty to accommodate and anti-discrimination.

Duty to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship: This means that employers, as per the Human Rights Code, are legally obligated to provide your necessary accommodations up to the point at which:

- it would be financially impossible for the business to cover the costs

- such that accommodating you would place a significant burden on someone else's workload on a permanent basis

- your accommodations risk the safety of other employees

The exception to this standard is the Bona Fide Occupational Requirement (BFOR). This refers to any job task that is deemed an essential component of performing the job (i.e. the ability to climb ladders for a fire fighter). In the case of not hiring/firing due to an employee not being able to perform a BFOR, the employer is acting within their legal right.

Scenario 2: You're disabled or chronically ill and job searching. How do you bring up your disability/condition with a new or potential employer and when do you ask about accommodations?

The when and how of disclosure depends on a few factors.

1) Is your disability visible or invisible?

2) Do you need accommodations for the interview or only if you get the job?

3) Do you have mobility needs that might limit your physical access to some office buildings, such as being unable to do stairs?

If your disability is visible, you'll likely want to disclose earlier in the application process. If you're bold, you can include it in your cover letter. This can be particularly effective if the job ad states that they encourage applications from job seekers of "diverse backgrounds". But beware - while this can be a sign of a company with a particularly inclusive workplace culture ... it may be a red flag that you'll end up the token diversity hire. You'll usually be able to tell the difference once you interview.

If you have mobility access needs to be able to get to the interview or otherwise need accommodations for the interview itself, a good time to disclose is when the interview is being scheduled. Again, you don't need to go into great detail. State that you're disabled and that you require xyz access needs (e.g. "I'm a wheelchair user and would like to confirm that the building you are located in has an elevator.")

The sad part about not disclosing a visible disability prior to showing up at the interview is that people may be surprised (eye roll) and act really awkwardly. One day, I hope that a disabled person showing up to interview for *gasp!* a job will not be treated with such surprise, but society's not there yet.

If your disability is invisible and you don't need accommodations until you get the job, by all means hold onto that power until you've signed the job offer. Once they've offered the job and you've agreed, Human Rights Codes state that they can't legally rescind the offer simply because you've disclosed a disability. That would constitute discrimination.

If you're going this route, the best time to disclose a disability or chronic illness is during that initial planning/onboarding phase. Meet with your supervisor and state that you would like to share with them that you have a disability/disabling condition that has the potential to affect certain aspects of your job. Make sure you clearly know what these are, and as above, do your research with JAN to know what accommodations you need. Do not expect your employer to know how to accommodate you because, except in the most inclusive of companies, they won't have any idea.

Even if you know that right now, your disability or condition is well-managed enough that it won't affect your work, disclosure at the beginning is a good idea so that if issues arise, they won't come as a surprise to your employer, and you're already protected against wrongful termination. This is an especially good idea if you have a condition that flares or is likely to get worse with age. Think of it as setting yourself up for long-term success in this job.

Lastly, in either case, know that by working as a disabled person, you are doing your part to slowly break down ableist standards of employment and fighting back against the poverty pipeline. And if you're not able to work, you're not broken!!! It's the system that is broken. I have never had a disabled person tell me that they don't work because they don't want to. It's always that they can't.

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