NEWS AND RESOURCES

What's New in Technology for August 2001

Adaptive and Assistive Technologies: Saving Your Greatest Asset
It’s six o’clock in the morning and you get a telephone call. Groggy, you pick up the receiver, a voice on the other end says, "Ms. Peters, this is Cary Osgood. I wanted to call you and tell you my dad, Frank, won’t be in to work today or for quite a while. He was in an auto accident last night and is in ICU right now."

After getting through the initial shock and finding out that Frank sustained severe head injuries, you thank Cary for calling, get ready for work and head to the office. On arriving you tell the staff what’s happened, make arrangements for flowers and offers of help. You also contact all of the customers on Frank’s to do list and tell them what’s happened and ask for some additional time to take care of their needs.

A week later, Frank is in a hospital room recuperating. He’s progressing, but the head injury left him blind. You are grateful he is still alive and progressing, but you’re very stressed out from trying to take care of all of Frank’s customers. No matter what your remaining staff does, they can’t satisfy Frank’s customers the way Frank could and they want him back or they will go to a competitor.

You realize now how valuable Frank really is, but don’t know what to do. How is he going to take care of the customers? He can’t see, so he won’t be able to type in the orders or do many of the routine tasks he needs to do when he returns – if he returns. It’s doubly bad since Frank services half of your customer base.

Most people do not and will not run into this particular scenario in their working lives, but the potential exists. What’s more likely to occur, is that one of your employees as they age may develop vision or mobility problems. As a person, you naturally hate to see the pain and suffering such a situation may cause. You certainly don’t want to add to that pain. However, as a businessperson, you have a responsibility to yourself, your employees, customers and vendors to make a profit and help everyone maintain their livelihood.

Topping everything off, the Americans With Disabilities Act puts you in an even worse position. If you find you can’t keep the person on, you may now be faced with a lawsuit. If ever there was a case of "no way to win," you have found it.

Well, never fear, have we got a solution for you if you’re faced with a similar situation. The only thing it will cost you is money – maybe a little, maybe a lot – depending on the situation.

Although our prior statement may sound a bit sarcastic, think about the cost of letting an employee go in such a situation. That aging employee may have been your bookkeeper for thirty years and knows a lot more about how the business is really run than you. In the Frank situation, the loss of such a key employee may doom the company to bankruptcy or at least very hard times for a long period of time. Just exactly how much is your business really worth?

In today’s workplace, there are many technological aids available to help employees perform their jobs. We will talk about just a few. Beyond that, one very useful place to go on the internet is www.rehabtool.com. From this Web site you can connect to numerous other sites to find technology to help you salvage valuable employees with disabilities ranging from mild cognitive disorders to extremely debilitating problems (blindness, deafness, etc.).

Tools for the Cognitively Impaired

Turning first to cognitive disorders such as memory impairment, early stages of Alzheimer’s and many more disabilities, there are aids to help these people remember important steps in their day-to-day activities. Such devices are programmable to meet the needs of each individual, much the same way as an artificial limb might be fitted. Individuals can access information through on-screen prompts and repetitive tasks can be scheduled with cueing performed by sounds. Perhaps if the absent minded professor in Flubber had such a device, he would have been married much earlier.

Tools for the Blind or Visually impaired

Let's take a look at Frank's situation. Your right hand man of 20 years suddenly finds himself blind. That means he can't type or read the computer screen. That'll make it pretty tough for him to make a sale if all the pricing is on the computer; tough, but not impossible.

Instead of retiring Frank on a disability pension, why not look into speech recognition software and text-to-speech software? Frank may not be able to see anymore, but would you really want to lose his rapport with the customers?

Instead of being totally blind, let's assume Frank's vision is harmed to the point where he can see, but is legally blind. There are products for the computer, which allow the written text to be magnified enough to help the visually impaired see. What a boon! Now you can help Frank stay gainfully employed while keeping your bottom line where it should be.

Tools for the Deaf or Those Who Cannot Speak

You've heard of TTY/TDD telephone devices for the hearing impaired, but you basically need to be making or receiving a phone call for these to work. Of course, use of the telephone may be the main need of the disabled employee, but what happens if you or a speech impaired employee needs to be able to talk as well as think? Hiring an additional employee just for that purpose would be cost prohibitive, but you can purchase a text-to-speech or symbol to speech system. This will allow you to control the pace of the presentation.

Similarly, if you have a person who is deaf or hearing impaired, using speech/voice recognition software could be useful. This software will take what you say and put it into writing to be read by the individual, but be careful. The software is getting better all the time, but still is cumbersome to set up, requiring an enrollment period to set the software’s "ears" to understand the way you talk.

Additionally, some of the Deaf have never been taught the English language beyond a rudimentary level. Instead, their training has been in American Sign Language, which is symbol and not letter based.

Tools for the Mobility Impaired

It takes more than a wheelchair to keep a person working. Have you ever tried to fit a standard wheelchair underneath a standard desk? What about quadriplegics or those who can use their feet, but not their hands?

Whatever the need, there is probably a solution to assist the disabled individual. The solution can range from a low-tech stick in the individuals mouth to a high-tech switch or head controlled mouse. Those in wheelchairs may find it much easier to turn their wheelchair into a desk rather than fit the wheelchair under the desk. The options are too numerous to mention, but Rehabtool.com and similar sites can help you explore the possibilities.

Get the credit you deserve.

Recognizing the cost of complying with the ADA can be expensive, Congress made a nonrefundable credit available to small businesses (gross receipts of less than $1 million or less than 30 full-time employees) to give them incentives to help their employees and customers. The credit is equal to 50-percent of the cost of eligible expenditures in excess of $250, up to a maximum of $10,250. Hence, the available credit in any one-year is $5,000. Coupled with the ability to depreciate the remaining cost of the eligible expenditure, or fully deduct it in the year incurred depending on the nature of the expense, this can make the cost of helping a disabled employee quite reasonable.

The credit is claimed on Form 8826 and the rules can be tricky as to what constitutes an eligible expenditure. However, many of the items expenditures previously described in this article would be eligible assuming they were necessary expenditures.

But is it reasonable?

If your aim is to meet the ADA requirement of reasonable accommodation, your first stop should be to your lawyer’s office. The ADA is a relatively new law (in effect only since 1992) and the rules of what does and does not meet the reasonable accommodation test depend entirely on individual circumstances. Therefore, we suggest you not simply look at the cost of a particular assistive device and declare it unreasonable. The courts may disagree and you don’t even want to think about what that could cost.

Your more important decision in a case where you have a valuable employee who becomes disabled is what the cost of not assisting that person will be. Simply put, you have a very heavy investment in each employee. The longer the person is with you, the higher the investment. Sometimes, it is more cost effective to go the extra mile and assist that employee back to productivity than to lose your entire investment. This doesn’t even count the intangible benefits you may accrue as a result of helping your employee out.


Conclusion

Whenever you are faced with the task of aiding a disabled employee, there generally are no easy answers. Regardless of the disability, you will likely be faced with out-of-pocket costs as well as the human cost of whatever you decide. There may also be employment practice considerations also. The area is complex and requires the expertise of qualified professionals such as your attorney, CPA and, perhaps human resources experts. You also need to consider your own feelings as your make your decisions.

We aren’t lawyers, but we have had a significant depth of exposure to human resource and cost related decision-making. That experience is available to you whenever you need it. Please let us know when we can help.

Have a great August!

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