Advocate for yourself in 2023 – Twin Cities

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Amy Lindgren

Second Sunday Series — Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of 12 columns on work and disability that will appear through August — one on each second Sunday of the month. Previous columns discussed career tips for family caretakers, testing limits as a worker with disabilities, the dilemma of revealing disabilities during job search, and overall concepts of disability in the workplace. 

Lose five pounds, ask for a raise, learn to speak a second language — these are great resolutions for the new year, which is probably why so many of us repeat them over and over. If you are a worker with disabilities, here’s another one: Advocate for yourself at work this year.

For individuals with disabilities, work can be more difficult than it needs to be. Not only are workplaces generally designed for fully-able people, but our workloads, work processes, and work tools are also created as if no one but a healthy 30-year-old would ever be employed in their use.

Yet one look around a typical workplace would immediately belie that assumption of perfect health. In any group of workers, you’d see individuals with hearing devices, eyeglasses, leg braces, walking assists … and that doesn’t account for those whose disabilities can’t be observed.

However we decided that workplaces and processes should be one-size-fits-all, the truth is that just doesn’t work. People with disabilities have always known that, but their voices haven’t always been heard.

Even protective legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), can only go so far in daily practice. Many disability rights advocates note that the ADA and related policies serve mostly as templates or guidelines, rather than legal mandates.

It’s not that employers don’t want to observe the laws. But the combination of being under-staffed, untrained and unaware results in faulty assumptions from workplace managers about the needs of the disabled.

Which brings us back to that New Year’s resolution. It may not be fair that the burden of creating a better workplace for disabled workers would fall on the workers themselves. And yet, who better to frame the discussion than those who are most directly affected?

If this concept applies to you, don’t worry about improving things for everyone. That may come later but for now, focus on what you need personally to thrive at work. For example:

Assistive devices: For the majority of workers, devices needed to improve their work will be relatively simple and inexpensive. A magnifying screen for the computer, adaptive grips for the forklift, headphones to block noise, a light box to combat seasonal affective disorder.

Revised processes: Processes are often habit-based, but altering them can be fairly easy. For example, sending out meeting agendas and related material in advance will help those with neural differences or processing disorders. Ordering smaller quantities from manufacturers or specifying smaller shipping containers will help workers who have lifting restrictions.

Project assignments. When projects are broken into smaller parts, workers who are easily overwhelmed are more likely to stay on track. Clear deadlines with ample notice will reduce anxiety for others.

Training. Using multiple training modalities — hands-on, video, written instructions, physical examples — means that more learning styles are accommodated. Workers are better able to absorb the information, which increases their opportunities for success.

These are just a few of the ways the workplace or work processes can be adjusted to accommodate a worker’s disabilities without adverse impact for other employees. But it’s not likely to happen without the affected worker taking the first step.

If advocating for yourself at work is one of your resolutions this year, start with these three steps. First, take stock of your situation and what would most improve your work life. Include in this analysis actual products and their cost, or specific processes that could be revised, etc.

Next, choose the appropriate person to handle your request. This would most often be your manager, but could also be someone in human resources or in purchasing, for example.

Finally, make your request clearly, without apology. You may not need to frame it as an issue of disability, unless you feel that would be more effective. A simple statement might be enough: “I’ve found that I do better with the training process when it’s taped so I can run it through a few times. If you don’t have any objections, I’ll set that up.”

As you approach this issue, try not to think of it as fair or unfair. Just assume your manager doesn’t know, and make it your goal to improve things.

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