What are Reasonable Accommodations and how do they apply in the workplace?
When autistic people apply for jobs, they might have some worries or concerns that having a difference or disability like autism might impose a barrier to them finding a job that matches their skills, talents or personal qualities. There may be concerns around how they might be expected to perform their job to exactly the same standard as colleagues who might be neurotypical or who might not have a disability. They might also have concerns around what the implications would be if they were to observe workplace rules or norms, or if they were to perform workplace tasks or communicate differently to their neurotypical colleagues.
Other worries or concerns might include having to ‘mask’ or hide their autistic traits to fit into the workplace, having to explain their autistic traits to colleagues, dealing with workplace misunderstandings, differences in communication styles, managing change, pressure to quickly adopt to new tasks, dealing with workplace stress, sensory processing differences around particular aspects of the workplace (i.e. dress code or environment) or maintaining a work-life balance.
These factors all have an impact on whether an autistic person decides to disclose their difference or disability to a prospective employer, as well as what stage of the recruitment or induction progress, should they decide they wish to disclose. This is especially true if the person has more than one difference or disability. Disclosure is a personal choice – it is up to an autistic person to decide whether they wish to disclose that they’re autistic at work, as well as how much information they wish to reveal about themselves. As an organisation whilst you shouldn’t necessarily expect an employee to disclose to reach out for support, as there can be substantial barriers for an autistic person to obtain a diagnosis, particularly as an adult. It might be a good idea for an employee to disclose they’re autistic if they feel comfortable and confident to do so.
Your workplace might already be recruiting autistic staff, but might not be aware of it. This is because of the many reasons outlined earlier, many autistic people might opt not to disclose their difference or disability, and opt to ‘mask’ their autistic traits whilst they’re at work instead. Masking is a type of social camouflaging and/or compensation techniques an autistic person might use to appear more ‘neurotypical’ or more sociable in everyday situations, or to suppress socially awkward traits. These techniques might range from observing or mirroring ‘neurotypical’ behaviour or learning social scripts to making eye contact or suppressing autistic traits. Masking shouldn’t necessarily be encouraged or expected, as it can take a great toll on an autistic person’s wellbeing, and can lead to burnout among autistic staff.
What laws support autistic people in the workplace?
There are a number of Irish and EU laws which support both autistic people and people with disabilities. These laws also combat discrimination against people with disabilities when they enter the workplace. Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) provides that every disabled person has the right to work, and provides a wide range of rights which allow people with disabilities to participate in the workplace on an equal basis as their non-disabled peers. These rights include to right to be protected from discrimination, to receive equal working conditions, have equal access to training an career development opportunities and to on-the-job supports, and to have access to reasonable accommodations at work. The 2000 Equal Treatment Framework Directive intends to combat both direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of disability. It also directs measures should be provided to accommodate the needs of disabled people. This includes making adjustments to the workplace, provided that this does not pose a ‘disproportionate burden’ to the employer.
The Equal Status Acts 2000 includes people with disabilities under its nine grounds of discrimination. The Employment Equality Acts has more specific measures which outlaw discrimination in the workplace on disability grounds against employees. This includes application forms, interviews, aptitude tests, equal pay, access to employment and vocational training, promotion and disciplinary issues. Section 33 of The Employment Equality Act allows employers to take ‘positive measures’, like hiring quotas or additional workplace supports. These supports are aimed at attracting people with disabilities and addressing discrimination against people with disabilities at work more widely.
What are Reasonable Accommodations?
Section 16 of the Employment Equality Act obliges employers to provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ to employees. However, this does not mean that an employer would have to recruit an autistic person or an employee just because they are autistic or are disabled – Employers do not have to hire staff if they believe that they cannot do the job. Applying supports can level the playing field for autistic people and disabled people, and can support an autistic person to contribute to the organisation’s work and to be included as a valued member of the organisation.
Reasonable Accommodations are changes or adaptations an employer makes to the workplace, such as adjustments to the workplace environment or to a specific work routine or practice, which supports autistic people and people with other disabilities to carry out their work and access the same training and development opportunities on an equal footing as their non-disabled colleagues. These include making changes to the workplace environment, making adjustments to workplace practices and providing technology equipment which can support an autistic employee at work. It also entails offering flexible working hours, substituting workplace tasks and providing access to training and workplace supports.
Denying Reasonable Accommodation to employees constitutes as discrimination under the Act, unless applying the accommodation would pose a ‘disproportionate burden’ on the employer. In this instance, a ‘disproportionate burden’ relates to the financial costs of the proposed accommodations, the impact on staff time and productivity, whilst also considering whether an employer can access public funding like the Reasonable Accommodation Fund that can help put the support in place.
While the employer is obliged to provide reasonable accommodations, and these accommodations are primarily there to support an autistic person in their work, providing accommodations also provide many wider benefits for employers. Employers reported that applying reasonable accommodations were highly effective and the costs of applying accommodations were offset by reduced costs in other areas. They also note that accommodations also helped employers retain or promote employees, increased the organisation’s morale and productivity, increased employee safety, and increased employee attendance.
Reasonable Accommodations are a flexible way of supporting an autistic employee, in that they can be both provided by themselves or can be put in place as part of a wider employment support framework aimed at recruiting autistic employees and addressing barriers autistic people and other people with disabilities encounter when at work. One such example is having a Job Coach, whose main job is to help candidates negotiate the initial employment-entry process. These include connecting employees with prospective employers, contacting employers on identifying suitable work placements and positions, tailoring CVs to match specific job profiles, and providing on-the-job training matching employees’ working expectations.
Another programme which particularly benefits autistic people with high support needs, or who need specific supports is Supported Employment. Supported Employment programmes provide a wide range of customisable, flexible, person-centred job supports directed at helping candidates prepare for entering the working world, matching them to the jobs which are structured around their strengths, expertise and special interests and helping them adjust to working life.
Supported employment often involves the extensive use of assistive technology and job coaching and communication supports to achieve its objectives, and can be particularly beneficial for people with higher or more specific support needs, in terms of both improving their employment outcomes and, whilst also increasing their independence, confidence and social skills.
Autistic-friendly and disability-friendly measures are people-friendly measures, and applying Reasonable Accommodations in the workplace ensures that autistic people (and people with disabilities) are valued and appreciated in the workplace.
Many autistic people know what accommodations they need to help them produce their best work, even if they might not always be sure about acquiring these supports. Equally, managers might not always know how to broach the subject of disability at work, or how they can support a staff member that they believe to be autistic or neurodivergent, or what questions they can ask to ensure that autistic employees get the support they need. This is where having a tool like a Reasonable Accommodation Passport can be helpful, as it can support both an employer and employee to agree on what the supports and employee needs, whilst also allowing both parties the opportunity to regularly review how these supports are being implemented and whether they meet the employee’s requirements at work. It also allows both parties to have a written record of what supports are in place, along with any changes or adjustments made to employee’s supports.
What Reasonable Accommodations can support autistic people at work
There are many supports available that can support autistic staff, and they can wide range of adjustments that an autistic person might need whilst they’re at work. These encompass changes to the built environment, communication supports, training and providing technology or applications. These supports can also help autistic employees and candidates to navigate the recruitment process, or to do their best work and achieve their potential in their role. We’ve broken them down into the following section.
- Motor skills supports
- Quiet rooms/spaces,
- Tinted glass panes
- Adjustable seats,
- Designated quiet workspaces/Quiet room,
- Replace fluorescent lights with LED lights
- Provide desk dividers/sound absorption panels around the workspace
- Provide advanced notice when meetings happen and what topics will be discussed
- Allow the employee to use written communication if required
- Provide access to a dictaphone to record spoken instructions
- Provide written lists of crucial information such as passwords
- Provide specific feedback to help employee target areas of improvement
- Set clear expectations around performance standards
- Allow the use of a dictaphone/instant messaging
- Speech and language therapy
- Provide regular structured short “stim” or relaxation breaks
- Providing sensory toys/objects around the workspace
- Access to a quiet space/Sensory Room
- Placing employee in a workspace with ample natural light
- Sunglasses/Blue screen glasses
- Headphones/Earplugs/Ear defenders
- Limit the use of fragrances in workspaces, meeting rooms and bathrooms
- Assigning a personal workstation, with tools that can help with personal organisation such as visual planners
- Provide set working hours for autistic staff if they need it, as opposed to variable shifts;
- Flexible work times
- Allow for changes to start and finish times if there isn’t a flexible working hours policy in place
- Organise large tasks into several smaller tasks
- Provide reminders of when to move to the next task
- Provide a to-do list of assignments for each day
- Colour-code tasks by priority
- Provide written/visual reminders of job tasks, particularly important tasks
What Government Supports are available?
There are several Government supports which can help autistic people find work within the private sector. These include:
Workplace Equipment Adaptation Grant
- The Workplace Equipment Adaptation Grant is available to private-sector employers, employees or self-employed people of up to €6,350 to adapt the workplace or purchase specialised equipment for staff with disabilities if they are currently working, offered employment or an apprenticeship, changing jobs, or are self-employed. Workplace adaptations may include minor building modifications, like ramps or disabled toilets. It may also include assistive technology such as voice synthesisers, text-to-speech software, picture cue or scheduling software. It also includes training to support these adaptations. Additional funding of up to €9,523 is available if the organisation needs specialist training to use this technology.
Wage Subsidy Scheme
- The Wage Subsidy Scheme provides incentives to private-sector employers to employ disabled workers for more than 20 hours weekly. There are three strands to this Scheme which employers can benefit from:
- Strand I is a general subsidy for any disabled employer working between 21 and 39 hours per week, and whose perceived productivity shortfall is in excess of 20% when compared to a non-disabled peer. The rate of subsidy is €5.30 per hour and is based on the number of hours worked, giving a total annual subsidy available of €10,748 per year based on 39-hour week.
- Strand II – Depending on the total number of disabled workers, their employer can apply for a grant to cover additional costs. This ranges from an additional 10% for 3-6 employees to a maximum of 50% of the wage subsidy for 23+ disabled employees.
- Strand III – where 30 or more disabled people are employed, employers can avail of a grant of €30,000 per year. This grant assists with the cost of employing an Employment Assistance Officer.
The final Government support falls outside the Reasonable Accommodation Fund. But it can be a very useful support in integrating people with disabilities into the workplace. The Disability Awareness Support Scheme is available to private sector companies who are interested in employing or retaining or people with disabilities, and fund up to 90% of costs, and up to 80% of costs in subsequent years of up to €20,000 for providing disability awareness training, with additional funding available for providing materials related to the training.