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Surveys Seek to Identify Job Accommodations that Get People Back to Work

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Vocational rehabilitation experts widely agree that successfully negotiating for and receiving workplace accommodations is key to helping people with disabilities return to the workforce. But landing a job or returning to one is only the first step—holding on to a position over the long term is equally important. That’s particularly challenging for people with progressive conditions like Parkinson’s disease and those aging with spinal cord injuries. What are the best strategies for people with physical disabilities to ask their employers for flexible schedules or workplace changes? And what barriers do employers see when hiring or making accommodations for workers with physical disabilities? A new study at the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research (CROR) at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab intends to find out.

Working with CROR Director Allen Heinemann, Ph.D., researchers Pamela Capraro, Deborah Crown and Robert Trierweiler have developed a survey that they are pilot testing with 20 Chicago area employers and 40 workers who are former vocational rehabilitation clients of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. The researchers are planning to survey a mix of white- and blue-collar workers with a variety of disabilities across a range of industries from transportation to banking. Employers will be segmented by size — 50 employees or fewer; 51 to 200; 201 to 1,000, and more than 1,000.

If you have something progressive like Parkinson’s [disease], you may only need minimal accommodations at the beginning but then two years later, you may need to go back and ask for more.

Robert Trierweiler, Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor

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The questions for workers will focus on how they asked for accommodations and which ones made the most difference in helping them transition back to work and retain their jobs. Heinemann, who has employed numerous people with disabilities over the years at CROR, expects the most common solutions will be free to employers or low cost such as flexible scheduling, time off for medical appointments and sit/stand desks.

The employer survey will be directed at human resources managers and will ask questions about perceived barriers and facilitators to employing people with physical disabilities. It also will inquire whether the company has a formal process for dealing with accommodation requests and who makes the ultimate decision. It may be a particular challenge to get busy human resources managers to answer an outside survey, especially at small companies where people may wear more than one hat, Heinemann acknowledges. “We will be appealing to their altruism and promising to make the results available to them,” he says. “We’re hoping they will find the information useful.”

The researchers will be drawing on their decades of experience at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Vocational Rehabilitation Services Department, where counselors work closely with Chicago area employers to get their clients back to work. “Our clients have a diverse range of disabilities just like you would find in the hospital--spinal cord injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, amputations,” says Capraro, who recently retired as manager of the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Department at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. The department follows its clients’ progress for a year, and the results are encouraging. “We have an average 87% job retention rate,” Capraro says. 

Trierweiler, a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, has spent decades visiting hundreds of area companies, assessing the physical work environment and offering suggestions for making accommodations for people with a variety of disabilities. He then follows up with firms about how employees are doing and what else the workers might need. “We’re looking at it from the employer’s point of view as well as the employee’s,” Trierweiler said. “If you have something progressive like Parkinson’s [disease], you may only need minimal accommodations at the beginning but then two years later, you may need to go back and ask for more.”

The researchers are hoping to complete the pilot testing by the end of November and will then spend time refining the survey’s questions, adding clarification where needed and evaluating the logical sequence of topics and queries. The team hopes to be in the field with a revised survey by January 2020. The surveys will be conducted by phone with each interview taking about an hour.  Because the team is small--fewer than a handful of people — it will likely be gathering data through the summer of 2020.

I hope we can describe the particular combination of job demands and accommodations that are used frequently and get feedback on the kinds of barriers that both employers and employees encounter.

Allen Heinemann, Director of the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research

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In year three, the project will move to its next phase: validating the results with a national survey of 2,000 employers and 2,000 workers with disabilities. The team will recruit and survey participants across the country using consumer advocacy groups, state vocational rehabilitation agencies and nonprofits such as Disability:IN. Once those results are gathered and analyzed, the team plans to publish articles in academic journals and disseminate its findings more broadly through webinars, workshops and internet sites. The researchers also are planning to create a peer mentor program in which people with experience going back to work after an injury or illness are paired with those who are coping with recent disabilities.

The ultimate goal is to empower workers with disabilities to seek accommodations that help them stay employed and to educate employers about the benefits of saying yes to such requests. “I hope we can describe the particular combination of job demands and accommodations that are used frequently and get feedback on the kinds of barriers that both employers and employees encounter,” Heinemann says. “That should result in advice that both groups might need.”

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