There was a time in my life when I would worry every single day that I had ruined a wedding. The couple didn’t know it, and I would have to tell them.
On one such unmerry occasion, I was driving my family to a party at a friend’s house a little north of town. We would shortly pass by a church — our church, at the time. As we got closer, my mind turned to an office in that church building — my office, in fact. And in that office, behind my chair, was a drawer full of files.
Each file contained a questionnaire and other paperwork pertaining to an upcoming wedding. In those days, my job was to interview couples who wanted to marry at our church. I had to make sure there were no impediments, i.e., nothing that would prevent them from saying “I do” when the time came. No previous marriages. Both parties baptized (or granted a dispensation from the bishop). That sort of thing. I also had to schedule the wedding and make sure all the paperwork was in order.
As the church came into view on our drive out of town, I desperately wanted to pull into the parking lot, go into my office, and check one of the files for some error I’d just imagined was there. To be sure, in all my time in that job, I never made any error that necessitated my cancelling a wedding. It wasn’t realistic to think that I had. But I feared that I had. I believed that I had. And until I verified that I had not, in fact, made a wedding-threatening mistake, I couldn’t relax.
On this particular drive out of town, however, I didn’t want to make my family wait, so I didn’t stop. Also, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to check just one wedding file. Once done with that one file, another imagined mistake in another file would pop into my head unbidden. I’d spend half an hour or more going through loads of paperwork, possibly more than once, and I might not even feel better. The relief brought by my obsessive and compulsive checking usually didn’t last. Sometimes I felt worse.
But I was miserable at the party. I couldn’t stop thinking about the error I was sure I’d made. What would I say to the couple? How much money had they already spent on a wedding that wouldn’t happen? Ten thousand dollars? Thirty thousand dollars? Would they sue the church? Would I lose my job?
Eventually, I would check for that particular worry and see that, as always, everything was fine. At least with the wedding files. I certainly wasn’t fine. I was miserable. I relooked at those files every workday. Sometimes I drove in on Saturday to check because I couldn’t function at home until I’d assured myself that all was well. Sometimes I checked on Sundays when I was at church for, you know, church. Some nights I spent awake in anguish, telling myself over and over that I needed to wait until the morning because driving to the church at 2 a.m. would not go over well with my employer. As it was, my boss was not pleased with all the time I was wasting, and rightly so.
Accommodating Disabilities Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
I had a disability — obsessive-compulsive disorder. If I’d asked for an accommodation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would have required my employer to work with me to find one that enabled me to perform the essential functions of my job — in this case, overseeing the wedding files. In HR, we call this the interactive process.
But I didn’t request an accommodation. I couldn’t think of anything my employer could do to help me, and, anyway, I didn’t know that the ADA existed and entitled me to certain protections. I did consider asking my boss if someone else could be assigned responsibility for weddings, but that seemed unfair of me to suggest, so I didn’t. If I had asked, my employer could have said no, legally. Reassigning essential job duties isn’t required by the ADA.
For all the good it does — and it does a lot of good — the ADA didn’t come to my aid. It fails to help a lot of people with disabilities. Accommodations don’t always work. Even when accommodations enable people to do their jobs, their jobs may exacerbate their disabilities. Also, many people keep their disabilities a secret, fearing retaliation, discrimination, or being perceived as a burden. And the ADA applies only to employers with 15 or more employees, so many employees with disabilities aren’t protected.
How We Can Be More Accommodating
Given the limits of the law, it falls on us to do better. How can we be more supportive?
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First, we need to build trust and reduce fear. Rebecca Cokley, a disability rights activist and program officer at the Ford Foundation, encourages employers to be a “solution oriented partner instead of someone who treats workers with disabilities as a burden.” Employers can do this, she suggests, by talking openly and transparently about “the use of accommodations as an asset for the organization” and by managers and senior leaders disclosing their own disabilities.
Second, employers can change the way they approach accommodations. Compliance isn’t the limit — not if we’re serious about making life and work better for people with disabilities. In my case, while my employer had no legal obligation to reassign the wedding files, it theoretically could have if I had wanted or asked for that. In other cases, trying out requested accommodations, even if they appear to be a long shot (or an undue hardship), may give people just the support they need (and may prove not to be a hardship for the employer after all).
Third, we need to ensure that high costs and time constraints don’t keep people from getting the medical care they need. Health care benefits and paid time off are both invaluable here, especially for those with disabilities, who generally experience poorer health and additional barriers to getting the support they need and who are at greater risk of poor outcomes from Covid.
Finally, keeping someone in a job isn’t always a reasonable goal. And it shouldn’t be. Sometimes people stay in jobs that add to their anguish, pain, or injury because they can’t find a feasible way out. Could we, as a society, make it easier for people with disabilities to leave jobs that cause them harm? What about expanding the reasons someone can receive unemployment? What other creative solutions could we find?
For my part, I needed therapy and medication to do my job without feeling terrible and wasting lots of time — at home and in the office. My boss also forbade me from checking the wedding files on any day except Wednesday. That helped too. Once I got the support I needed, I could think about the wedding files without a rush of anxiety. I could watch wedding scenes in movies and video games without my mind turning to some imagined error buried in a wedding file in my office. And I stopped compulsively checking those files. Mostly.
Overall, I was happier. And I did better work. A win-win.