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16 April 2016

ADA accommodations at work

It's been (weeks, gack) a while since I first posted on the intersection I've had with my job as a software developer and PTSD. If you've landed here you might want to read those for some posts for some background on what's going on.

Previously first: Software development, the ADA, and PTSD
Previously second: Disclosing PTSD

Since I first made the request via email, I met with a human resources person who is the disability coordinator where I work. We had a face to face discussion about the request I made-- that during the time I'm at work, I'm not asked to task switch from one role to another because it completely blows up my ability to concentrate on what I'm doing. I explained the situations that brought me to make a formal request in writing, that I was being asked to flip flop from programming to help desk and back, and we discussed the environment I work in-- noise, distractions, etc. We also discussed the process for first having my request evaluated and then ultimately approved/disapproved. It was actually a very cordial and productive meeting.

There was a (standard) form that I had to fill out explaining all of this, because paperwork. Next step is that the human resources person I'm working with will draft a letter that I can take to the VA Hospital to get the medical (well, mental health) documentation that my employer needs.

A word about the VA Hospital (mine, anyway) and requests for disability accommodations-- in my experience they don't have a clue what to actually provide, and you need to be able to tell them. My providers were very willing to help when I've needed academic accommodations (extra time on assignments, testing in private rooms, etc) but they didn't know exactly what to write in a letter for the disability resource center. Ultimately I had to ask the disability resource center just what they wanted, and my VA providers filled in the blanks and faxed the form in.

Fortunately the human resources person at work has previously interacted with a VA Hospital and understood perfectly; they're going to draft up a letter for me to take to the VA Hospital that's (again) fill in the blanks and fax it to us.

This means that I need to talk to the mental health clinic and let them know I need this letter filled out. I'm going to secure message them first, and explain the situation and ask them if I need to come in, if I need an appointment, or if they can just help with the paperwork without seeing me. If I have to go in, I'll probably have to make an appointment (ugh) but I'm going to try the easy route first.

One of the things I've learned from dealing with the VA: use secure messaging. Phone calls aren't recorded and added to your medical records, but secure messages are. Ever hear the phrase money talks, bullshit walks? That's how it works. Using secure messaging makes sure your requests and the responses (or non-responses) are accurately recorded.

Anyway, once the medical documentation is filled out and sent back and recorded, the disability person from human resources evaluates it and ultimately reaches a decision either granting the request, denying the request, or modifying the request. Note the emphasis on modifying-- they can subtract from the request, but they can also add to the request. One of the things we discussed during the meeting was looking at additional options such as noise canceling headphones to help with the noise level (right now I wear foam ear plugs and over the ear headphones, sometimes with music, and it's still hard to concentrate).

This is definitely progress, although since it involves paperwork it's not moving at internet speed.

It is very important to note that if I hadn't sent an email and specifically stated that I was making a formal written request for ADA accommodations, nothing would be happening right now. If you don't make the request, no one's going to help you, and if accommodations would help you do your job better, it's up to you to find that out and ask for them. That being said, people really don't know about this stuff until they encounter it. The person who first received my accommodations request didn't know what to do, so they went to human resources (which was exactly correct). Management people are supposed to be trained but especially if you're in an environment where this kind of request is unusual they probably won't understand right away.

Since making that formal, written request I've been hit with task switching while scheduled for software development twice-- once for a training meeting for my help desk role this week, and now again for a meeting next week. There's also been discussion that during software development hours over the summer that we'd be subject to being pulled off to do general help desk work.

I've actually received feedback lately that I'm doing well on my software development work, but at the same time I'm being asked more and more to do the exact thing that I've requested accommodations not to do. Pleading ignorance the first time, I'm willing to allow.

After that it becomes a matter of respect-- it's perfectly reasonable to ask for medical documentation of a disability before granting accommodations to prevent the ADA being abused. It's technically reasonable to say that since the accommodations request hasn't been officially approved yet, that the accommodations are not in place-- but if someone you value as an employee tells you they're a combat veteran and explains that PTSD is messing with the work they do, and they tell you they're 100% willing to provide proof-- it's kind of a slap in the face to keep doing exactly what's causing your disabled and/or disabled veteran employee to need accommodations while you wait for the official word.

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I sort of anticipated all of this when I first applied for and was hired for this software development gig. It's not an internship that I'm getting credit for, but it is a student position. One of the questions I had a year ago was how PTSD was going to affect me-- it's one thing to stay up late at night and hack on personal projects, but it's another thing entirely to have to keep a strict schedule and write code for other people in exchange for money. (Looking back on previous coding gigs, PTSD had a really major, really negative effect-- but I didn't know about PTSD then.)

Over the summer, hopefully, I'm going to be interviewing for a new coding gig (or several) where the question of how I'm going to cope with an open office and a tech culture that's not very familiar with hackers with disabilities is going to be a huge concern. I want to do a good job. I want my employer and my co-workers to be happy with my work. For me to do a good job, I need certain accommodations. I know that now.

During interviews too, I'm going to probably need accommodations. This is where things get really interesting. In case you're not familiar with the current format for interviewing programmers-- it's usually programming tests, often with questions from computer science that are designed to find "the best of the best".

If you want a job writing software, you need to be able to handle coding interview questions that are written for people who don't have cognitive disabilities. They're written for smart people who have things like algorithms and data structures memorized. You can't look things up. No cheat sheets. Usually, not even the same editor that you're used to. It's meant to be difficult even for normal people.

I'm not saying that tech is unfriendly to people with disabilities-- to say that would be a very unfair generalization. I am saying that the current process can appear outwardly unfriendly to someone with a disability that affects their concentration. As with anything, every company is different and as I said earlier, many times it's a matter of ignorance more than anything else. I didn't know anything about the ADA for most of my life. I forgive you, future interviewers, if you don't either.

The following is from a document posted by the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (direct link). It has a ton of other information about interviews, including resources for employers who are conducting interviews for disabled applicants, but this really stands out for me:

Do not try to imagine how you would perform a specific job if you had the applicant's disability. He or she has mastered alternate ways of living and working.

It's exactly true. That's a huge part of what I've been doing on my own for the past few (actually several) years-- exploring and learning different ways to cope with PTSD both at work and on my own time. I use vim for editing code instead of an IDE because it's visually quiet (if you're not a programmer this won't make much sense, and that's ok). It's just text on a black background, where in an IDE there's popups and tool tips and syntax helpers and all kinds of other stuff that's constantly being updated, sometimes with every keystroke. That's just one thing, but it's a very important one-- and there are tons more that I probably don't even realize I do every day.

The same document also says:

Treat the individual with the same respect you would treat any candidate whose skills you are seeking. Likewise, hold individuals with disabilities to the same standards as all applicants (emphasis mine). 

And that's also exactly right. If I need an accommodation, like written vs verbal instructions for an interview question, it's up to me to ask for it.  It's also up to me to study Cracking the Coding Interview, and my data structures and algorithms textbooks, so that if you ask me a question I know my shit and can answer it.

Feeling like we're in a gray area here? Yeah, me too. That's why I'm bringing up interviewing in the context of asking for and hopefully being granted accommodations in my current position. Veterans in general don't like talking about our disabilities-- we're supposed to be leaders, highly trained, and all of that, and disability often gets equated unfairly to weakness. Hackers don't usually like talking about weaknesses either, especially cognitive ones-- we're supposed to be the smart ones, the solvers of problems and the gods of hardware and/or software.

The issue with that is we need to talk about our disabilities and how we've overcome them if we want people to understand when we ask for accommodations. People tend to distrust things they don't know or understand. PTSD is one of those things. It's taken me years to learn how to deal with it, and I'm still learning how to deal with it-- but the more I talk about it, the more I explain how it affects me, the more I explain how it affects what I do, the more it makes sense and the more people around me are better able to cope with it as well.

More to follow.

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