As Rosemarie Garland Thomson wrote in the NYT this Sunday, “this is a claim to inclusion and right to access resources.”

You’ve heard me say this before (like, here), that one in four adults in the U.S. suffer from some type of mental disability, and that number is even higher for people with physical and mental impairments. So, chances are, a good percentage of those sitting in your meeting are working with a disability.

And suffering in silence.

That shouldn’t be, argues Ms. Garland Thomson, because most of us become disabled through illness, injury, or accident. “Becoming disabled” is difficult enough, and, to add insult to injury, one recent study states that nearly 85% of people say they’re uncomfortable discussing mental illness at work.

Why?

You likely have a good performer at work, who could be a great one if (s)he felt comfortable enough to say, “this is what I’m dealing with and this is what I need.” It’s not a sign of weakness, and as an employer, isn’t it your job to get the best from your employees? As Ms. Garland Thomson wrote, “We just might be better off preparing for disability than fleeing from it.”

The rewards are numerous: increased performance, lower rates of attrition, improved employee morale, less unexplained absences.

And, lest we forget: IT’S THE LAW.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits employers from taking an adverse action (demotion, termination, etc.) against employees with physical disabilities and mental health impairments as long as they can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

As employers, we should go further.

Rather than accepting an aura of isolation, try building an atmosphere of inclusion where no employee fears losing his or her job by coming to you and saying, “You know what, I developed____ [lupus, anxiety, depression, diabetes], and I need an accommodation to continue to do my job well.”

Engage in that interactive conversation.

Ask the employee what accommodation (s)he needs, and if you’re not sure if it’s do-able, call a lawyer and ask. You can even request medical information from the employee about the disability if the disability is not obvious. This allows a medical professional, within HIPAA guidelines, to advise you about the employee’s limitations and which accommodations might assist the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.

As I said here, change the conversation by bringing it out into the open.

Here are some tips:

  1. While government contractors are required to do so, take the opportunity to offer your employees the opportunity to self-identify with a disability.
  2. Determine whether or not an employee requires an accommodation. Actually talk to the employee about this. We call this “engaging in an interactive discussion.” Should you consult a lawyer for this discussion? Sure, absolutely, never hurts.
  3. Obtain from your employee or his or her doctor an understanding of how the disability affects the employee’s ability to do the job.
  4. Provide the accommodation, unless it is unduly burdensome.

Takeaway: STOP the stigmatization, follow the law, and allow employees to feel they can come to you with this or any problem. This improves the likelihood that you can avoid a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC – a bonus!

You never know: you may be the next person to “become” disabled.