How Accommodating?

I had heard that most schools and businesses are willing to make accommodations for students and employees with disabilities, but for a long time I didn’t understand exactly what that meant.

The examples you always seem to hear are things like, “putting a ramp in for someone with a wheelchair” or “giving a student private space to take a test so they are able to concentrate better on the test,” but when I first learned that bipolar disorder can be considered a disability that could warrant accommodations, I couldn’t quite put together what that meant. Obviously a wheelchair ramp is a little more straightforward, are there things that a school or business could do to help someone with bipolar disorder function more successfully?

Now, I also want to mention that the spectrum of people who have a bipolar diagnosis is a wide one, and many of them function perfectly well (and some above and beyond) without the need of any sort of accommodations. At the same time, there are others (like myself) who work better under a certain set of conditions than others, and that could be due to any number of things.

For myself, I would say the lack of helpful medications has been a big one, and being without pharmaceutical help regulating everything means I am susceptible to many more triggers than I would, potentially, if I had something to lessen or space out the episodes. As time has passed, I’ve began learning what some of those triggers are, and that is where accommodations might be helpful in avoiding them.

I also wanted to mention that the phrase:

“Reasonable accommodation, which does not cause undue hardship”

is usually attached by employers to the word accommodations as (what I would consider to be) one of those little asterisks on a word that can act as a legal loophole.

I’ve spoken many times about losing jobs due to discrimination against mental illness, and the undue hardship portion of that phrasing is what most companies who terminate an employee in a discriminatory way (for having a disability) hide behind as their justification for their actions.

The thing is, the phrasing undue hardship is subjective, and will vary from company to company.

For example, if the accommodation you are requesting costs the company a lot of money, they will probably be less likely to consider it if it is a small company. Generally speaking, smaller companies have a tighter budget and less wiggle room (at least, from what I’ve experienced), and would have an easier time claiming they can’t afford what you need, that your request would cause financial hardship for them.

I’m not saying that this small company is doing a terrible disservice, or that they are being discriminatory, because the company will probably always consider the needs of the company first. That’s just business. There are situations where I do believe a request would cause undue hardship for a company, but there are other situations where I’ve seen companies claim undue hardship before even seeing the request for an accommodation, or when screening potential employees before employing them. That is discrimination.

These places are not all the same, and just because a company is small means it wont consider your request. In fact, sometimes making a request for a small company can be much easier, especially if that is a company of just one or two people.

“Can I have tuesday afternoons off for doctor’s appointments?”

“Sure.”

Done.

I would say that if you feel discouraged about asking for an accommodation (because of the potential for discrimination) there are a few things you can do to help  yourself out.

1. Consider what your needs are and what kinds of changes might help your situation.

For this bit I had to do a little research because I honestly didn’t know what kind of things people ask for as accommodations -and I certainly didn’t know what separated “reasonable” from “unreasonable” requests. But, looking back on my post a while back called  Work; the Main Roadblocks, I’ve been considering what exactly the issues are that I’ve been having in the work environment.

Stress is a big one, and that is caused by a number of things. My commute time, long hours, being in the middle of a group of people without any time alone, hearing people whispering, etc.

When I did a search, here are some of the accommodation requests I saw that might help out in some of those areas, as well as a few extras:

Flexible Scheduling – flexibility in start or end times at work, part-time shifts, or taking more frequent breaks.

Modifying Work Space – relocating to a quieter area, or working from home.

Changes in Supervision – being provided written (instead of verbal) instruction, having a weekly meeting with supervisor to touch base.

Technology – using headphones to block noise, using a tape recorder for taking notes, or using a lamp that isn’t fluorescent.

Changes in Training – allowing extra time to learn tasks, or providing individualized training courses.

 

I’m sure there are many more out there, and sometimes a creative solution is necessary. In the meantime, though, if you are interested in requesting one or more accommodation(s), what next?

2. Consider the impact of your request and if you expect it can realistically be met.

Would what you are requesting be expensive? Time consuming? Or is it a minor sort of request?

If you are asking to relocate your desk to a quiet area, is there somewhere in the building where that could happen, or would many other people need to move to accommodate that request?

If you are asking to work from home one day of the week, does the work you do allow being away from the office -or are you dependent upon information and interaction with the people there?

Consider what you know about your employer already and if your request can fit in with how the business already works. If you are a new employee, I would suggest speaking with someone about how the request process works, and for requests like desk location it may be beneficial to request this during your new-hire process. It might be easier to create a space for you right off the bat than create a space that needs to be relocated right away.

3. Back yourself up with the right documentation. 

If you are planning on requesting an accommodation, you will undoubtedly be required to provide a doctor’s letter with your request. I would suggest getting this information before making the request, to provide a professional demeanor and show that you know what your needs are and how to go about getting them met.

At the same time, keep copies of all paperwork you provide your employer, as well as request that any negative response you receive in writing. This way, if you begin suspecting a discriminatory situation and feel so inclined, it would be possible to hire a lawyer in your defense. In that situation, the employer would have to prove that your request creates undue hardship. Keeping copies of the paperwork you have provided and the process you went through creates a trail of evidence on your behalf, should you happen to need it.

There are other situations where such documentation might come in handy if things go awry. Unemployment may ask for such documentation (and they have asked me at least once), and other government agencies and services might as for it as well, so it is good to keep anyway.

When having trouble at work, it can be easy to abandon the job and begin over again with the belief things will be different the second time around. I am a total culprit here, and the 15 jobs I have had in the last 5 years is pretty good proof of that.

I’ve been trying pretty hard to learn what I can do, and what I can ask for, to help my chances of success in the workplace lately, and the information really warranted being shared, I think. Most of this I didn’t know before a week or two ago, and why not pass it on if there is someone out there who could use it!

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12 responses to “How Accommodating?

  1. This may sound silly, but can you elaborate on the non-fluorescent lamp?

    • Well, I know that I have a difficult time concentrating under fluorescent lamps, and if I am under them for any long-ish period of time they will trigger a migraine for me, 9 times out of 10. If I have access to natural light (or a lightbulb that produces something akin to natural light) I can preform much better. I’ve heard situations where flickering fluorescent lamps have triggered seizures as well, so I don’t know much as far as them triggering bipolar episodes, but if they trigger a migraine for me, that almost always involves triggering something of a mood land-slide at the same time.

      A lot of people I’ve met here in Seattle rave about having lamps that provide the elements of natural sunlight (which, in this area of the world, becomes very scarce 3/4 of the year). Being exposed to sunlight (natural or artificial) is a big trend right now and is said to help keep depression at bay through the absorption of Vitamin D.

      I have never used one of these lamps myself, but it is something I’ve considered. I haven’t heard, either way, if it has helped my friends, but it is certainly an interesting suggestion!

  2. Very good points here; documentation is helpful if the employer decides to punish you or fire you for admitting you have mental health problems. I believe the protection of the American With Disabilities Act only applies if one’s doctor can show their regular activities are significantly impacted by the illness. Without that documentation from a doctor, your job may be taken away by an uncompassionate employer.

  3. You’re right the spectrum of bipolar disorder can be a wide one ~ I once read on someone’s bipolar blog that “bipolar is not crazy” so I asked them “how can a disorder once known as Manic-Depressive PSYCHOSIS” which expert and sufferer Kay Redfield Jamison once described as “AS CRAZY AS IT GETS” not be MADNESS. (Jamison was talking about delirious psychotic mania.)

    Yeah here in the Centre of the Universe (which is of course London but hey you already knew that…) we have a Disability Discrimination Act meaning you can be bipolar and (allegedly) schizo, like I am (schizoaffective) and the employers have to give me a day off whenever I feel like one! How brilliant is that!!!

    Also I never truly know absolutely when I’m “ill” and except when I’m hypomanic like I am now I feel ill to some extent at least pretty much constantly ~ so what’s to stop me taking days off all the bloody time??!??!??!!???!? Ha ha ha!! 😉

  4. Beware of small companies – they don’t have to play by the same rules as large companies. They can get away with discriminatory practices much easier than large companies. (I had this happen to me.) And it’s easier for them to say, ‘we can’t make that accommodation’ and get away with it. It’s difficult to know whether you should reveal your illness and risk the stigma and possibility of dismissal (on dubious grounds) or to keep it to yourself and just do your best without accommodations. There’s argument to be said for both sides.

  5. Yeah too true Monday: small companies are bastards. Large corporations always like to cover their arses before they stick the boot in.

  6. Ukh I just read back that pile of over-exuberant crap I wrote yesterday. WHY DO I DO THESE THINGS??

  7. THANKS!! This was a great informative post and had great advice. Flexible scheduling is something that has been HUGE for me in my job. Some mornings are just tough—and I end up crying or in my closet. Those mornings it’s good to be able to go in later and just stay later too. Great advice!

    • I’m glad you’ve got a job that allows for a flexible schedule, I’ve found that to be a pretty helpful situation as well!

  8. Great suggestions, Sarah. I’ve long wondered what I’d request as accommodations, other that being able to work from home part of the time. I think the main one for me is no night hours – I can’t teach courses in the evenings and still be expected to function all day every other day.

    • Good point, and I forgot to mention that one. I have had to ask for a “no night hours” accommodation before… sleep is key in helping me function, so without that things can get out of control very quickly!

  9. Pingback: The Last Two Months; Reality vs. Fiction | bi[polar] curious

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