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Accommodation compassion

May 26th, 2015  |  Joy Waltemath

It was my turn to blog, so I wrote this traveling home from my brother-in-law’s funeral. Post-polio syndrome weakened his lungs and likely hastened his death.

Skip was five when he became ill with polio. Jonas Salk was still working on his vaccine, which wasn’t made available to the nation’s children until several years later. He spent months in an iron lung and returned home with crutches as his companion, until surgery shortened his good leg to match his bad. He wore a leg brace all his life.

Interference with functional independence. Post-polio syndrome affects an estimated 25 to 40 percent of polio survivors, mimicking the onset of the disease with progressive weakness, loss of mobility, and often diminished lung capacity. As the NIH page on the disease states, “post-polio syndrome is rarely life-threatening, but the symptoms can significantly interfere with an individual’s ability to function independently.”  Not well-understood, it seems to strike individuals in their 40s and 50s—in their prime earning years.

Skip worked as a med tech for many years. Soon after a new supervisor took over in his department, his performance was measured and found wanting; he was too slow; he made mistakes. By this time post-polio syndrome had begun to affect him. Post-polio syndrome is diagnosed by the following characteristics: already having had polio with paralysis; a period of partial or complete functional recovery, usually for at least 15 years or more; plus progressive and persistent new muscle weakness with decreased endurance, sometimes including general fatigue, muscle atrophy, or muscle and joint pain. After ruling out other causes, these symptoms must have persisted for at least a year before a diagnosis can be made.

Individualized inquiry. Usually an accommodation request from an employee triggers the duty to accommodate. But, if an employee with a known disability isn’t performing well, a manager or supervisor may ask the employee if an accommodation is needed. Skip likely would not have asked for an accommodation. His supervisor noticed he was too slow; did she wonder if he needed an accommodation? Yet even if she had, could his disability have been accommodated? He couldn’t move quickly from patient to patient; could the job have been restructured so that he spent more time in the lab running tests? I don’t know; I wasn’t there; I don’t know whether there was an individualized inquiry into his medical status and qualifications before Skip was fired.

He moved home with his parents and never really worked again, although he volunteered for a public health department outreach where he was particularly valued for his ability to do blood draws on difficult patients, like little kids. He sang in the choir and in a men’s chorale for years, until his lungs gave out and even performing in his wheelchair was too much for him.

Doing the hard thing well. I’ve managed people for over 25 years; in my experience, managing individuals with disabilities that require accommodation (note: not all disabilities do) can be challenging at best; unsettling and unsuccessful at worst. It requires management effort—sometimes a lot of effort; it always sucks up management time; it requires the cooperation of the organization; and it doesn’t always work. And until I read this paragraph over again while proofreading it, I did not realize my stated perspective completely lacked any consideration of the impact this process has on the individual with the disability.

Often, by the time an employee does seek a reasonable accommodation for a disabling impairment, he or she is frustrated. Managers or supervisors are likely frustrated too. Many times the employee’s coworkers are aware of the situation as well; they also may be frustrated. As managers and employment lawyers, when faced with such a situation, how do we react? Do we overreact, either by a knee-jerk “no, that will never work,” borne out of exhaustion, or by an over-accommodating “yes” to anything the employee asks because we feel compelled by unrealistic optimism? Either approach is a form of giving up, an urge we should resist. Instead, no matter how difficult, we need to respond to the individual in front of us with honesty, compassion, and understanding, whether or not accommodation is possible.

Skip’s life reminds me of the individual behind the disability, and so I remind you.