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Simple changes can accommodate workers with autism, migraines, other hidden disabilities

Creating a workplace that can accommodate the reasonable needs of all employees, including employees with “invisible disabilities” such as autism, migraines or anxiety, is not as hard as it might sound — and it may benefit all employees when it comes to creating an environment that enhances collaboration and efficiency.

Many architects believe that workplace design has improved in recent years to help employers work towards this goal.

Kyle Solyak, an architect at Tono Architects in Lancaster, said office design has moved toward creating open spaces that utilize natural lighting, instead of florescent lighting.

While the move has benefited employers who want to be energy conscious, it could also help employees who suffer from migraines triggered by light sensitivity. Additionally, spaces that use task lighting and desk lamps allows employees to customize lighting to their individual needs.

According to Solyak, architects typically add physical and digital elements, such as white noise, that cut down on noise pollution. This helps mitigate office distractions for all employees, including those who have intellectual disabilities such as autism.

Frank Dittenhafer II, president of Murphy and Dittenhafer, an architecture firm in York, said these sensory accommodations often aren’t separate initiatives to make workplaces accessible, though. In many ways, these design elements are integrated into the standard work of architects.

Scott Shonk, architect and firm partner at Beers Hoffman in Lititz, agreed. When they design spaces, he said, architects must follow building codes that include requirements from the American National Standards Institute and the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

In addition to providing standards for accessible design, the ADA requires that employers with 15 or more employees provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Accommodations are deemed reasonable if they don’t pose an undue burden to employers. Employers, for example, do not have to provide accommodations that would prevent employees from doing essential job functions. This means a teacher probably wouldn’t be able to request the ability to work remotely, though someone with a job that can be done outside of the office might be able to reasonably request such an accommodation.

Rocco J. Iacullo, a lawyer with Disability Rights PA, says the ADA is broad in defining the types of accommodations that must be provided by employers.

“Generally most things that employees with disabilities ask for are not going to cause an undue burden so an employer would be required to provide them,” he said.

Dr. Meta Verma, a UPMC Pinnacle provider who often sees patients suffering from migraines and multiple sclerosis, estimates that if she sees 100 patients who suffer from migraines, only about 10 will need to request accommodations.

For those employees, a reasonable accommodation could be as simple as providing a quiet workspace or a room for employees to work in that allows them to use natural lighting or a lamp, instead of florescent lighting.

According to Dittenhafer, the popularity of open workspaces often means there are various work stations for employees. This adaptability makes it easier for people with disabilities to find a space that best suits their personal needs, but it also promotes a collaborative work environment.

Earlier this year, the administration of President Donald Trump issued guidance that would allow states to implement work requirements for many people who are eligible for Medicaid. As several states seek to adopt the federal recommendation, Pennsylvania remains one of the states that does not have work requirements.

Still, the possibility has likely left many local employers wondering what adopting work requirements would mean for their companies.

While proposed Medicaid work requirements are supposed to exempt people with disabilities, many advocates have pointed out that many people will likely be excluded from this exemption.

Certain disabilities, such as migraines or anxiety, could be debilitating for employees and affect their abilities to perform at work, but might not be considered a disability for Medicaid purposes. In these instances, these employees might not be exempt from work requirements.

Whether they are exempt for Medicaid purposes, many advocates for people with intellectual or other “invisible” disabilities believe accommodating this group of employees likely will not be a huge burden to employers, and contemporary office design is generally adaptable.

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