By SUSAN JONES
The Office of Disability Resources and Services may fall under Student Affairs in the Pitt organizational chart, but its services also are available to staff and faculty.
For new employees with disabilities, the office would get involved during the onboarding process to help determine if and what accommodations are needed.
But for current employees who may have just developed a condition that limits their ability to work, the path is not quite as straightforward.
The employee can go straight to his/her supervisor, if they have a good relationship. Then, if needed, the supervisor will refer them to the Office of Disability Resources. If you’re not sure if your condition qualifies or what if any accommodations can be made, you can consult with DRS before making a formal request. Or you can go directly to DRS to file an accommodation request.
Leigh Culley, director of DRS, has a staff of seven, but she handles all employee requests herself. Most of the work the office does is with students.
“We discuss the nature of their condition, how it’s affecting them. We engage in what’s called the interactive process,” said Culley, who has been with the office since 2002 and director for the past five years. “That allows me to understand, what is this individual’s condition? How is it affecting them in a major life activity related to work? What are the current limitations in terms of their ability to perform their job? And we discuss accommodations at that time, what is it they are asking for? What will allow you in your mind and your opinion to perform the essential functions of your job?”
These conditions can range from more visible problems, like mobility issues, to hidden conditions, such as mental health disorders or chronic diseases like diabetes.
“I think it’s important for employees to understand their condition and how it’s affecting them in their life, whether it be a home, in their personal life or in their work life,” Culley said. “And working with our team to understand is there something more that they should consider to allow them to manage their condition most effectively.”
Chaz Kellem, the head of PittServes who uses a wheelchair, said communication is the key in balancing any disability with your job responsibilities.
“Understand your own diagnosis and be able to advocate for yourself and that is at the forefront of communication,” said Kellem, who is taking the lead on forming a new disability affinity group. “Do your research, talk to your doctors, understand when and how you physically work best and communicate that to your superiors and DRS.”
For instance, if you are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, you might find you work better in the morning and can adjust your schedule.
“Disability is an identity which can impact anyone at almost any given time, whether it be from illness, disease, old age or accident.” said Kellem, who stresses the focus should be on inclusion from the very beginning. “If we designed and built things through inclusive lenses, it
totally changes the fabric of our future and just makes it better for everybody.”
Kellem said as soon as he was hired Tom Armstrong, a recruiter in Pitt’s human resources office who focuses on veterans and people with disabilities, was a great resource during orientation, After he officially started, Culley and her office provided assistance right away.
“The University continues to be creative and continues to be forward-thinking as it comes to accommodations, which can look as simple as, for me, I have a keyboard tray underneath my desk that allows for me to relax my shoulders when I'm using that computer, to extra time on tests to van service to simply working with the employee on transportation and parking access,” he said.
At a Student Affairs, Aid and Admissions committee meeting recently, Culley said that 40 percent of the students who are registered with DRS have a psychiatric condition, but she said that doesn’t hold true for faculty and staff. “There’s quite a gamut of disability categories as it relates to faculty and staff,” she said.
“I think that invisible disabilities like psychiatric conditions or chronic conditions … there’s a concern about, you can’t see this disability and therefore, what is the perception of others, whether it be coworkers or supervisors, in disclosing or asking for some type of consideration? What might that be? Is it going to … give the perception that they’re not as capable of performing, that they’re not as reliable?”
When a request for accommodation is made, DRS gathers medical documentation to verify the existence of a qualifying disability. Once a determination has been made, Culley will work with supervisors to make any accommodations needed.
“We don’t want … the supervisors really to have that knowledge of the employee’s medical condition,” she said. “We are the designated office to maintain that information, to keep that information confidential. And so, when I talk to supervisors about a person’s disability, in how we can accommodate that person as an employer, I don’t ever disclose the condition.”
For instance, if an employee were undergoing cancer treatment that required chemotherapy twice a month and a recovery day after the treatment, then working through DRS, the employee might request intermittent leave as an accommodation. Culley said this often is requested as FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) time, taken from the employee’s sick days if available.
Employees who have been at Pitt less than a year are not protected by FMLA, “so in that case, then our office would be a natural starting point for them.”
Culley also suggested the faculty and staff assistance program as a good starting point for employees who are struggling with their condition because of stress or other factors.
“It’s a free resource, … that may be a good resource for employees to just have an initial discussion to get some guidance, some information, for a potential pathway forward.”
Part of what DRS does is to promote the idea that having more disabled people on campus plays into a diverse community. They recently have worked with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to start a “Diversity Includes Disability” campaign with posters of actual staff and students around campus.
“I think that as the university continues to emphasize the importance of a diverse community within the university, both faculty, staff, and also with students, and … as we talk more about disability and think more about it in terms of that as being a diverse world, I think that we’re going to see more individuals both being recruited with disabilities, but also I think it’s going to allow individuals to maybe feel more accepted, that they can come forward and make requests,” Culley said. “I’ve certainly seen an increase in requests over the past few years.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
DISABILITY AFFINITY GROUP
Any faculty or staff member interested in getting involved with a disability affinity group, can contact Chaz Kellem at firstname.lastname@example.org. This include anyone with a disability and allies of the disability community.
Kellem said the disability community is “prideful, is creative, is progressing, is forward thinking. We are no longer a community with our hand out. We are making significant change and impact on our communities. … We're going to continue to progress, and we need voices of all types to do that.”