Inexpensive tweaks are often all it takes for an office to become more accessible and inclusive

Each workday, video-game designer Jeffrey Vaughn wakes up between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. to get ready for another day on the job at ArenaNet. His morning routine seems uneventful: He eats breakfast, feeds his cats, takes a shower, and gets dressed in his business attire. But these daily tasks are far more taxing for Vaughn than they are for most individuals. “It’s usually enough to wear me out,” he said. “I need to sit for a bit (afterward), so I’ll rest on the sofa for a half-hour or so.”

Jeffrey Vaughn, who has multiple sclerosis, often communicates with his ArenaNet colleagues via email and minimizes physical effort at the office. Photos by Rachel Coward

Jeffrey Vaughn, who has multiple sclerosis, often communicates with his ArenaNet colleagues via email and minimizes physical effort at the office. Photos by Rachel Coward

The 43-year-old first started experiencing numbness in his legs eight years ago. The numbness stopped Vaughn from snowboarding, but otherwise didn’t affect him. Soon after, however, the left side of his body began tensing up for several seconds at a time, these contractions would happen approximately every hour. Vaughn also began experiencing dysarthria, a speech disorder which disrupts normal speech patterns. The episodes were symptomatic of a larger issue, and less than a year later, Vaughn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis, or MS as it is better known, turns the body’s immune system against its central nervous system, causing the immune system to attack the protective sheaths surrounding nerve fibers. As nerve damage intensifies, individuals experience numbness in limbs, vision loss, and slurred speech. In many instances, people with MS may not appear to have a disability at all, whereas others like Vaughn may require the assistance of a walker or cane.

Individuals with disabilities such as MS, autism, blindness, deafness, or the required use of a wheelchair make up 15 percent of the global population. In Bellevue, people ages 35 to 64 with disabilities make up 2 percent of the city’s population, according to city statistics. Disabilities are highly correlated with unemployment. Only 17.1 percent of people with disabilities are employed, according to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 64.6 percent of individuals without a disability who are an active part of the workforce.

This difference is due in part to symptoms that may render someone unable to work, but it also can be partially attributed to the misconception that people with disabilities require costly retrofits or changes to a workplace’s operations.

When Microsoft hired Don Swaney, who is blind, he requested screen-reading software. Most disability accommodations cost in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars to implement.

When Microsoft hired Don Swaney, who is blind, he requested screen-reading software. Most disability accommodations cost in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars to implement.

“The majority of accommodations don’t cost anything,” said Jennifer Sheehy, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. “They are things that you can do fairly easily without purchasing equipment or retrofitting. The accommodations that do cost something, the average cost is only about $500.”

That was the case when Don Swaney, who is blind, began working for Microsoft as a consultant. Swaney begins each workday by disembarking a bus with his service dog, a black Labrador named Louie. The two then make a beeline for the small desk where Swaney sits and begins checking his email. Rather than reading his messages, Swaney listens to each email with the assistance of screen-reading software called Job Access with Speech or JAWS. “I (also) have an iPhone — there is a speech software on that called VoiceOver,” he said. “If I need to do a quick Google search or I need to check my calendar, that is what I use.”

Swaney said that most blind workers do not require much adjustment from their employers; when he began working at Microsoft, his only request was the JAWS software.

When Swaney does have a special request, he said managers and coworkers have been accommodating. They’ve volunteered to walk Louie, and they assist in the visually oriented breakrooms. “If I go into one of the kitchens, I have no idea where most of the drinks are,” he said. “(Choosing one) would be like playing Russian roulette. I ask someone where the iced tea is, and they’ll look for it, no big deal.”

Swaney said flexibility with time is perhaps the most valuable accommodation an employee with a disability can receive. It might take Swaney a bit longer to respond to an email, or Vaughn’s presentation might stretch a couple minutes beyond what a colleague’s would. Thus, Swaney encourages employers to keep this in mind to foster happier, more productive employees with disabilities.

Swaney at his desk in Redmond

Swaney at his desk in Redmond

“We are so used to having things handed to us right now that when (people) see me struggling on a webpage — which we all do — they ask if they can help me,” Swaney said. “It really shows how impatient people can be. … They also think it’s very painful for me, when really it’s just painful for them watching me.”

Employers can consult the website for the Job Accommodation Network which offers advice tailored to specific disabilities. For instance, accommodations for an individual with autism are largely based around communication. Allowing an employee with autism to communicate via email instead of face-to-face can make the workplace substantially more comfortable for her.

Businesses that are disability-friendly also can see revenue growth. “A lot of times, just being aware of employees with disabilities makes you aware that there is a whole customer base out there that has disabilities that may not be able to access your website or your facility,” Sheehy said. “Research has shown that people with disabilities and families with disabilities have a general sense of goodwill toward that company and are more likely to patronize it.” With more than 55 million Americans, and about 1 million Washingtonians, having a disability, it’s a group of consumers worth considering.

From an employment standpoint, discussing a disability during the job interview process can help a manager understand how the prospective employee would do the job. However, Sheehy cautions that employers adhere to guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which governs how employers hire, accommodate, and terminate individuals with disabilities.

“You never want to ask specifically about a disability because you don’t want to violate the ADA, but you are certainly allowed to ask someone how they would do a job,” she said. “If you have someone who comes in a wheelchair and there is a lot of travel or driving around, you might ask, ‘This job requires a lot of driving around. How would you go about getting to all of your appointments?’”

Sometimes this conversation never takes place because the applicant decides not to disclose his disability. Vaughn, the ArenaNet designer, said employers tend to treat a disability as a negative trait. Nevertheless, Vaughn discussed his MS with ArenaNet during his interview more than six years ago. “I don’t view my disability as a negative,” he said. “It’s just something that makes me different, and I’m glad that I disclosed because it allows my employer and I to have honest conversations about my needs and limits.”

Open communication is critical because the implications of disclosure can extend beyond the hiring decision. Some workers with disabilities fear that a well-meaning employer won’t promote them in order to minimize the employee’s burden.

These conversations have fostered a healthy relationship between Vaughn and his employer. ArenaNet gave Vaughn a personal parking space when handicap spaces weren’t readily available in the building and ensured he had access to the building’s elevator for meetings on other floors. Coworkers also have been open to adjustments. Speaking is difficult for Vaughn, so he usually communicates with instant messages or emails. He emails meeting notes prior to each meeting, and coworkers ensure he has a place to sit at all company functions. Moreover, ArenaNet lets Vaughn work a sliding schedule during winter months, as his fatigue seems to be tied to hours of darkness. “MS fatigue is not the same as being tired,” Vaughn said. “Being fatigued means that our limbs stop working, or our thought processes get scrambled easily. There’s no pushing through MS fatigue.”

Even with the accommodations, Vaughn still experiences some degree of difficulty throughout the workday. Bathroom trips, for example, require a walk across the office, which can be challenging when he is fatigued.

On days when Vaughn’s symptoms are at their worst, he pushes through in part because of his love for his job, but also to help prepare for a day when he might be unable to do so.

“I’ve never felt the urge to just give up, but I try to be pragmatic so I have long-term plans,” he said. “I’ve been maxing out my 401(k) plan for several years, so if my physical condition deteriorates I can retire at 50 and have enough to live on. I’d like to work longer, but I know that my next flare-up might leave me unable to drive or work.”

The consequences of MS haven’t left Vaughn bitter. “The irony is that before my MS, I was actually fairly unhappy,” he said. “MS has made me prioritize my life so that I don’t waste time and energy on things that don’t make me happy. It was hard for me to ask for help, but once I realized that sometimes I need to lean on other people, I met some amazing folks and my life is great.”

Outlooks like this can offer a fringe benefit for employers who hire workers with disabilities. “That person is going to give the most that they have because it is so hard to get a job, and once you finally get a job you want to hold on to it and do the absolute best that you can,” Swaney said.

Furthermore, providing an accommodating, inclusive work environment can improve the morale of current employees with disabilities and encourage those who have not disclosed their disabilities to come forward.

“Some employees on the job don’t know how their employer is going to handle the disability,” Sheehy said. “So they won’t acknowledge it, and they’ll suffer in performance or even leave the workplace, which is what nobody wants because people want to retain their good, valued, and highly-trained employees.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of “425 Business.”