Case Study: Reasonable Accommodation in Social Work

The social work field is often full of situations that are not straight forward. On a Reddit social media post, a social worker reached out to the social work community for advice on a particularly unclear situation. The social worker runs a solo, private practice in a small town, and recently had a request from one of her clients that she is struggling to navigate. This client has hearing loss and would like to communicate with American Sign Language in therapy sessions moving forward. The social worker identified a potential option for interpreting services, but it comes at a high cost. She knows it is her responsibility to pay for the interpreting service, even though it will cost more than the payment she receives for the sessions. Despite this, she is trying to figure out the best way to serve her client.

Since her private practice consists solely of her, she does not have coworkers to consult with. She also does not have an agency resource that is already in place. Additionally, there are few options for interpreting services in her small town. She poses a few questions to the reddit community, aimed at gaining a better understanding to serve her client. Responses suggested she try video interpreting services, which can often be a cheaper alternative. In considering the accommodations a social worker should provide, consulting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is especially useful. Under the effective communication section, it’s outlined that the interpreter service must be provided unless it causes undue financial burden. In a situation where this does happen, the provider must find a suitable alternative. In this instance, an in-person interpreter might cause undue burden, but a video interpreter might not.

This social worker is being reactive to the needs of this client, and proactive with the needs of future clients. She shared her idea to set aside a specific amount of money each year for interpreting or similar services. She also asked the reddit community if there were any other issues she should be looking at in this scenario. This shows a social worker who is committed to her clients and has their well-being and best interests in mind. With that being said, lets review the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics and the Americans with Disabilities Act to better understand how they specifically apply to this scenario.

The Code of Ethics

Social workers have an ethical and legal obligation to provide adequate services for their clients. This social worker is trying do to the right thing for her client by following the ADA and the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. In the NASW Code of Ethics, the first standard is the Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Clients. Within that standard, the first section outlines a social worker’s commitment to their clients. This means that a social worker’s actions should always be in the best interest of the client. There may be instances in which the social worker has to adhere to certain laws or rules that go against what the client wants, but this is necessary in limited circumstances.

Americans with Disabilities

In the United States, approximately 15% of adults experience some form of difficulty with hearing. Providing therapy to a Deaf or hard of hearing individual comes with unique circumstances for practitioners. Oftentimes, Deaf or hard of hearing individuals do not experience accurate assessment or diagnostic information due to these circumstances and the shortcomings of practitioners. The NASW has put together a briefing regarding the obligations social workers have when working with individuals who are Deaf or have hearing loss. When working with clients with any type of disability, social workers must provide services that are appropriate and serve the best interests of their clients.

Approximately 1 in 4 Americans are living with some type of disability. The most common types of disabilities are those relating to mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision, and self-care. Any type of disability may mean that an individual needs accommodations in a therapy setting. One of the first steps in providing adequate care for someone with a disability is to understand what barriers are in place for that person. Awareness and education are key elements to providing competent and adequate services for an individual.

Wrapping it Up

A social worker’s role is to act in the best interest of their clients whenever possible. This includes individual therapy sessions, as well as ensuring that future clients receive adequate treatment. Outside of individual therapy sessions, social workers often wear many hats. Social workers are strong advocates, initiators of change, and fierce activists. These are all important roles for social workers to bear when upholding their commitment to clients. Social workers often go above and beyond for their clients, and this is especially evident in cases like the one above.

Hiring and Potentially Unlawful Employment Practices

Twice in the last week I’ve been confronted by the issue of asking employment applicants whether they have any health or disability-related needs or requirements. First at a Human Resources Institute diversity event, and then on the application form for a part-time position I have applied for.

The practice seems quite prevalent among employers, who seem unaware that it is a potential breach of human rights. Based on the four years I spent working for the Human Rights Commission, let me explain what the problems, risks and solutions are.

Disability_symbols_16The Problem

Section 23 of the NZ Human Rights Act 1993 states:

Particulars of applicants for employment

It shall be unlawful for any person to use or circulate any form of application for employment or to make any inquiry of or about any applicant for employment which indicates, or could reasonably be understood as indicating, an intention to commit a breach of section 22.

Section 22 of the Act says that, if an applicant is qualified for the particular job, an employer cannot refuse or omit to employ the applicant; offer or afford the applicant or the employee less favourable terms of employment, terminate the employment of the employee, subject the employee to any detriment, or retire the employee, by reason of any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination, of which disability/illness is one.

The employment application I filled in asked:

  • Do you have any health conditions that may affect your ability to effectively carry out the functions and responsibilities of the position you are applying for? If yes, please give brief details.
  • Please list any special requirements, on health or personal grounds, you may need us to consider if you are employed with us.

The Risk

By asking these questions, and by my answering them, the employer puts itself at risk. If I do not get an interview, I may reasonably suspect that I have not been shortlisted because of my answer. I could then complain to the Human Rights Commission that I was not offered an interview because the employer did not want to employ me because of my disability. The onus is on the employer to prove I was less qualified than the person they employed.

Even if I do get an interview but not the job, I may reasonably expect that I wasn’t chosen because of my disability. A further mistake employers make is to ask these questions at interview — again, it puts the employer under suspicion of disability discrimination and, if faced with a complaint, they must prove the person employed was more highly qualified than the disabled candidate.

The Solution

Mitigating the risk is quite simple.

For the candidate:

  • You are under no obligation to answer questions about your health or disability status on application forms, so don’t. I simply wrote, for both questions, “I will be willing to answer this question when and if an offer of employment is made (refer s23 Human Rights Act 1993-NZ).”
  • If you are asked similar question in an employment interview, say the same thing.
  • If you are offered the job, be willing to discuss your needs openly and honestly and, if need be, offer solutions to any problems that may impact on your ability to do the job.

For the employer:

  • Do not ask questions about health or disability status on application forms or in employment interviews.
  • When you come to offer to offer a candidate a position, this is the correct time to ask about health and disability status — for any candidate, as not all illnesses or impairments are visibly obvious.
  • An employer has a responsibility to offer reasonable accommodation of an illness or disability, but only if the accommodation does not cause undue hardship to the employer’s operation or other employees. Accommodations may be things like flexible hours, a slight change in duties or, in some cases, assistive equipment. (See more about being an accessible employer here.)
  • Working out whether an accommodation is reasonable or not can best done in a transparent conversation with the favoured candidate. Remember that, if they are your preferred choice, making changes will be balanced by having the best person for the job. Remember too that a qualified candidate will most likely have developed ways to manage the impact of their illness or disability. Take notes about the discussion, the suggested accommodations, whether or not you consider them reasonable and why.
  • If, after discussion with the candidate you feel there is no way to accommodate their needs without undue hardship, you may need to withdraw your offer of employment. The candidate may disagree and complain, but a clear record of the discussion will help you prove that you have been reasonable in considering the candidate’s needs.
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