Academia, Autism, & Advocacy: Recent Research on Accommodations

Contributed by Sofia Case, a graduate from the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University.

Employees and applicants with hidden disabilities are often placed in the unique and difficult position of deciding how much to disclose about their disability in the workplace. Making a judgement call regarding what can be gained versus the risks associated, including stigmatized perceptions or retaliation, is as critical as it is challenging.

Ultimately, what can be gained is a more transparent workplace achieved by exercising your right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to a reasonable accommodation. A large population of people with disabilities possess valuable skills yet still face high rates of unemployment or underemployment. Easily accessible accommodations are essential to tap into this underutilized workforce.

While employees with disabilities are entitled to a reasonable accommodation, the legislation language is vague about defining “reasonable” as well as when the burden shifts from employee to employer in the accommodation process. However, there is a consensus that employees are required to notify their employer of a disability and/or limitations to initiate the employer’s involvement in the accommodation process. This becomes problematic when employers and courts require employees to reveal extensive medical records before they even begin to consider accommodations because it invites the opportunity for negative biases and assumptions based on a diagnosis.

As a result, the focus is shifted to the employees limitations, though they may be easily accommodated. A potential partial solution would be to require only information necessary to specific accommodations be revealed, such as symptoms causing the limitation.

Another key component in encouraging requests for accommodations is to carefully select those who have access to personal employee information and to be very clear about who those people are. Line supervisors are important to the accommodation process given their knowledge of the work process and workers’ abilities; however, those supervisors need not have access to the detailed medical information that supports the need for an accommodation and determines which accommodations are reasonable. The supervisor only needs to understand the extent of the employee’s limitations.

By controlling the amount of information that must be revealed and who receives that information, the potential for negative consequences can be reduced. A suggested response to these barriers would be to have a physician in place as mediator between the employee and employer. This system allows information to be held by a trusted third party with knowledge on the employee and their limitations. Though the use of mediators in securing accommodations is rare, it has seen successes. 

While it’s true that employers need some level of information to engage with individual employees’ accommodation requests, this information should be objective and only given as necessary. It should not invite or rely on stigma or stereotypes.

With limitations in place as to what information is received and by whom, the burden will no longer be placed on the employee to find a workplace where stereotypes and stigma do not exist. Perhaps then the decision to reveal one’s disability will not feel as difficult or require the employee to endure without appropriate accommodation.

Click here for the full article, Risking Stigmatization to Gain Accommodation (University of Pennsylvania Law Journal, 2020)