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Disability & Work Performance: Typical Task Challenges

Career and work practitioners are no doubt familiar with Section 16 (1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act that makes it mandatory for employers to provide accommodations for employees with disabilities as long as they can do the essential duties of the job and the accommodations do not cause undue hardship in terms of health, safety or cost.  This right works best when the disability is disclosed at an appropriate point in the hiring process.  What is not always so clear is how an individual’s disability affects his or her work performance which, in turn, will determine the appropriate accommodations needed for that particular employee.  The following is a breakdown of common areas of functioning affected by disability:

Motor Functioning:  This category includes both gross and fine motor functioning and may be reflected in difficulty with clumsiness and awkwardness; gripping or working with small objects; taking notes; signing and filling out forms by hand; or articulating words.

Mobility/Accessibility:  Challenges in this area may entail sitting, standing or walking for long periods of time; bending, lifting or moving heavy objects; reaching supplies or equipment; repetitive movement; navigating cluttered or obstructed pathways to the workstation; or inaccessible building entrances and washroom facilities.

Physical/Emotional/Mental Discomfort:  These discomforts take the form of pain or stiffness; need for frequent washroom breaks; fatigue or morning sluggishness; sensitivity to noise or light; eye strain from computer use;  confusion, brain fog or sensory overload; feelings of anxiety or depression; unwanted, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks; or manic/hypomanic episodes.

Auditory/Visual Processing:  Sensory impairments and some neurological conditions can cause difficulty in hearing or understanding the meaning of what people say; reading small print; or locating information quickly on a page.

Attention/Concentration:  There may be limitations in this area of functioning when a client has a condition that predisposes him or her to distractibility, fidgeting and restlessness; impulsivity; and difficulty focusing in general or, more specifically, concentrating on a particular task.

Learning/Memory:  Learning and memory impairments are particularly pronounced when starting a new job because they may impact on a number of areas including understanding and remembering verbal or written instructions; understanding and remembering the steps involved in tasks; reading and understanding written material; remembering facts, names or faces; as well as working with numbers or mathematical formulas.

Organization/Time Management/Multitasking:  These workplace skills can be impeded by disabilities that affect an employee’s ability to arrive on time for work; prioritize tasks and keep track of appointments; meet deadlines; manage a high volume or keep up with the physical pace of work; organize information and keep the workstation tidy; as well as perform a variety of tasks or handle multiple priorities at the same time.

Problem Solving/Decision Making:  Some disabilities may impede a worker’s confidence and competence in solve problems or make decisions quickly and accurately.

Stress Management:  Dealing with high stress levels in response to the demands of a job is a challenge for many people with disabilities, including the ability to deal with changes in duties, staff or location.

Workplace Communication:  Effects of disability on workplace communication may be manifested in challenges such as shyness and social withdrawal; inability to deal with or present to the public; difficulty handling conflict or constructive feedback; and problematic interactions with supervisors or coworkers.

Working Conditions/Physical Environment:  Barriers to optimal work performance in this area may be caused by sensitivity to smoke, chemicals or odours; exposure to high levels of radiation; poor ventilation or air quality; insufficient lighting or a noisy environment; and extremes in temperature such as too hot or too cold. Shift work, overnights and working outdoors in all types of weather may also be problematic for people with certain types of disabilities.

Legal Restrictions:  The two most significant legal restrictions to employment faced not only by people with disabilities but other population groups are a suspended driver’s licence and a criminal record.

Identifying your client’s specific task challenges takes the complexity and variability out of disability so that individualized accommodations can be provided to meet his or her unique needs depending on the type of position and work environment.  Conversely, exploring the ways in which disability does not affect an individual’s work performance will reveal their capabilities and work related strengths.  For example, someone with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder might have trouble with distractibility and keeping the work station tidy but may have heightened powers of concentration on a project of particular interest to them.  Of course the strongest motivator for both career practitioner and client in determining how disability affects work performance is the avoidance of job placement followed by job loss resulting from task challenges associated with the disability.

Denise Feltham
Designer of D.I.C.E. (Disability Impact on Career/Employment). Owner/Operator of D.I.C.E. Assessment & Employment Counselling Services Bachelor of Social Work Degree (Ryerson University). Career & Work Counsellor Diploma (George Brown College) Life Skills Coach Certification (Levels I & II) - YWCA

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