How To Ask For Workplace Accommodations, According To 8 People Who’ve Done It
You might have worked jobs that needed you at a computer screen for eight hours straight, or on your feet late into the night. These conditions can be annoying for anyone, but for people who live with a disability or chronic pain, they can be exhausting to the point of being impossible — and something will need to change. Asking for accommodations in the workplace can feel tricky to navigate. Not every employer is well-versed in what workplace accommodations look like, so bringing up them up for the first time at work can lead to a lengthy discussion.
Though disabled people are legally protected in the workplace under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), these employment rights — including their rights to reasonable accommodations — are not always respected. As Mic reported in 2017, research conducted by Rutgers University and Syracuse University found that people with at least one disability are more likely to experience workplace discrimination than their co-workers without one. Moreover, according to a collaborative investigation by The Washington Post and the Center for Public Integrity, 82% of 1 million disability workplace discrimination cases opened between 2010 and 2017 in the U.S. were closed without "relief" — which means the employee did not receive a change in working conditions like physical accommodations or compensation.
These statistics may seem stark on paper, but the toll they take on people is striking. "Sometimes, I've gotten what I've needed right away, but I've also had to fight hard to be given other accommodations, including a six-month struggle just to get a sit-stand desk," Debra, 43, tells Bustle. "Asking for accommodations requires disclosing disability and that leaves you at risk for being discriminated against, and I have lost jobs from asking for accommodations."
Though people who live with disability or chronic illness may face discrimination in the workplace, there are disability rights organizations and Protection and Advocacy Systems (P&As) across the U.S. that can help you advocate for your rights as an employee. Additionally, seeking out the advice from other people in the disability community can help give you a better idea of how to begin the conversation surrounding your needs at work with your own employer.
Here's how eight people tell Bustle they actually asked for accommodations in the workplace, so you can feel empowered when you go to work.
1. Rebecca, 30
Rebecca tells Bustle that having a candid conversation with her employer soon after being hired about needing a barrier-free desk and an accessible one-stall bathroom was key to creating a safe workplace for her. "It opened a very positive dialogue, educated everyone involved, and removed [the] stigma of people with disabilities needing difficult or expensive accommodations," she says.
While she says she felt nervous at first having the discussion because of discrimination from past employers. "In the end, I felt empowered because I advocated for myself."
2. Debra, 43
"It can be really hard to ask [for] accommodations, but I've learned that it's best to be proactive and ask for what you need right away (either after being hired, or when a new need arises)," Debra says. "I make it clear that what I'm asking for is an accommodation for a disability, although I try to avoid giving details about my condition."
3. Katie*, 29
Katie, whose name has been changed for privacy, says that she emailed her company's Human Resources office after being hired to detail the challenges of her chronic illness and the accommodations she would need. She explained to her new employer that her symptoms can change from day to day, along with what she is able to do.
"I found that to be a helpful way to begin the conversation, but asking for accommodations has really been an ongoing conversation as different challenges have come up," Katie says. "My best advice is to know your rights under the ADA, to ask for what you really need to do your job successfully, and [to] revisit the accommodations you have if you think need others."
4. Bex, 23
"I was struggling with debilitating burnout, barely making it through a seven-hour desk shift without having pain flares. Finally, I spoke to my supervisor about how difficult everything was becoming for me as my health worsened and got a doctor's note to have greater working from home flexibility," Bex says. "My accommodation to have my service dog in the office was also approved around that same time, and it has been life-changing. Now I can work from home guilt-free, bring my medical alert dog in to help warn me if a flare up is incoming, and we are working on getting me some FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] time as well."
5. Emma, 22
Emma says that to avoid illegal disability discrimination during the hiring process, she does not disclose her disability or accommodation needs until after she's been hired. "Good employers are more than happy to help and will make adaptions to keep you in work, despite your possible needs," she says.
6. Michelle*, 29
According to Michelle, whose name has been changed for privacy, finding a disability advocate from local state or city agency or nonprofit who can help assist you in asking your employer for workplace accommodations is valuable. "I've found that many able-bodied folks don't understand the impact or burden that managing chronic conditions can have on stamina or time, which made asking for accommodations tricky and very emotional for me," she explains. "Having an advocate who understood it was really helpful in that process."
7. Riley, 22
As a Deaf person, Riley says that they struggled to find work that accommodated them for a long time. While two of their most recent jobs have been supportive and accommodating, Riley explains that asking for reasonable accommodations often involves a lot of educating. "My supervisors do need to be reminded that just because I can speak doesn’t mean I can hear, and there’s a lot of education involved when I self-advocate," they explain. "Going into 'teacher mode' is crucial when I ask for interpreters or other accommodations — because if they don’t get it, they won’t do it — and while it can be tiring, I know that it’s helping me and any Deaf/hard of hearing employees they might hire down the road."
8. Neff, 30
"I came back to work after 18 months off for sickness, in part because I hadn't asked for the accommodations I needed. I found being frank was the easiest way to go about things, making it very clear that my physical ability would vary with the weather, that I could not do long shifts, and that I would sometimes need a cane or crutches," Neff says.
"I went to two occupational health meetings, and was once again frank, and made sure to challenge the things those meetings said that I felt were misrepresented," they add. They also say that, "The best advice I can give is to be uncomfortably honest, challenge preconceptions, and ask for small accommodations first, that are easy to make (if possible). People are always more open to change if it's not too difficult for them to achieve."
Asking for workplace accommodations when you need them can feel intimidating or overwhelming. However, there's absolutely no shame in asking for your needs. Knowing how other people in the disability community have tackled this topic can help you talk to your own employer about your accommodations, and can leave you feeling empowered and confident at work.